Saturday, January 2, 2016

Fa’a—The Samoan Way: Apia, Upolu, Samoa

A visit to Western Samoa feels like the first date that is going so well you wish it would never end.

Author Robert Louis Stevenson must have felt the same inspiration because he built his home on a botanical paradise with a view of Mount Vaea, where he was eventually buried.
RLS House

Driving around the island reveals the typical scenery of a tropical paradise. Gorgeous beaches with swaying palms and grass huts. Check. Lush mountains with water falls. Check. Endless varieties of mango, papaya, breadfruit, and coconut. Check. 
What enhances the beauty of Western Samoa from other places, though, is its people, their hospitality, and the concept of Fa’a—the Samoan way of relating to elders, family, community, spirituality, and the environment.

Samoa has about 362 villages, each with chiefs. As you drive through the villages on the island of Upolu, you can see the distinct colors for the local school, and the village’s unique symbol or crest on a banner or tied to a tree. Dogs, chickens, and young children roam freely, and brightly colored laundry flutters in the breeze with the palm trees. In some places people are napping in open-aired roadside huts, fale, or selling produce. 

The smoke from earth-ovens fills the air, along with the fragrance of flowers. Little platforms crafted from palms or wood keep the garbage off the roads. People smile, wave, and say hello, as if they always saw me on those roads. Even as a visitor, I feel more like family than a guest.

Several stops included secluded trails to waterfalls and swimming holes; a few had vistas of the mighty surf crashing against the lava rock formations off the shore. By far my favorite was to the Piula Cave Pool, on the north coast of Upolu and east of the main port city of Apia. Located on the grounds of the Piula Theological College, the cave pool is a few yards from the ocean. The slippery rocks that lead into the cold pool contain shells that glisten in the sun. You can swim into the cave that has underwater entry points to other caves. Perhaps it was phosphorescence or fairy dust that made the water appear to glow as I swam into the cave. Regardless, it felt like another world, and I half-expected to enter Rivendell at the other end of the cave.
After the cold dip in the pool, I decided to try the ocean, which was much warmer. You could spend weeks here exploring the caves and tide pools, hiking the mountains, cycling the island, kayaking, sailing, diving, swimming, surfing, or just lounging in a hammock. Visiting the villages had that laid-back feeling of a good summer vacation. Keeping this type of vacation “after-glow” is the quest I continue to explore.

The port town of Apia has a more modern pace and architecture. A two-storied Mc Donald’s has free wi-fi with purchase and the bars, banks, and municipal buildings have the markings of a city.  The local open-air market had the bustle of a flea market, similar to those I have seen in Asia and would continue to see throughout Polynesia. Some stalls had fresh produce, flowers, fresh-caught fish, and desserts [always with coconut]; others carried hand-crafts and textiles. The food stalls had monochrome fried foods that resembled dumplings and samosas, baked goods, and fruity concoctions. One vanilla, mango, and coconut drink came in an aptly named “Love” cup. Between the banter and bargaining was the distinct beat of drums and the constant, comforting ocean breeze. Along the waterfront of Apia, with its black-sand beaches, stands a magnificent church that can be seen as you enter the harbor. Inside has an ornately carved ceiling and marks the harmony with which the Samoans blended Christianity with their own spirituality.

Before ending my “date” with Upolu I spent an hour at a secluded little beach called the Palolo Deep Marine Preserve. After walking through some shady Australian Pines, I came to a small rocky beach. A short swim out through the waves led to a nice coral park with visibility so clear I did not even need a mask. I could float around in what felt like my own private ocean listening to the waves tickling the stones on the shore. 

I reflected on my day exploring this beautiful place, and felt the essence of Fa’a and the Samoan equivalent of Don’t Worry Be Happy: Fai Fai Le Mew. The language, like the people, sounds friendly, upbeat, and welcoming. If you remember your Fa’amolemole [Please] and Fa’afetai [Thank you] and you don’t confuse your po po [coconut] with your pao pao [canoe] you can relax and Ataata [smile].