Our contingent, seventeen volunteers in total pose with the Australian High Commissioner to Samoa.
I recently moved to Tonga and I started to write a blog when I remembered, hey what ever happened to my Samoa blog? I poked around and discovered that I wrote the following but never published it.
It has been so much fun to look back and compare notes between Tonga and Samoa. Anyway here goes, my unedited blog about my first few months in Samoa…
“Back in September 2013 I applied for a volunteer position in Samoa as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development. Christmas came early when I received an email confirming my placement, I would be working with the Ministry of Education, Sports & Culture. My role: capacity build staff in video production so they can produced a weekly children’s TV show. After a barrage of medical tests, paperwork and pre-departure training we were finally given the tick of approval. I was to be deployed in March along with seventeen other volunteers. Fitting my entire life into 20kgs was a trying test, luckily I was allowed a little extra baggage and somehow managed to check in 65kgs of spearing & camera gear… I hope I don’t pick up any extra hobbies along the way.
Arriving on a Sunday at 5am in Samoa can be very intimidating, everyone is at home preparing the To’onai, (Sunday Feast) you will find smoke puffing out of every home and the streets completely empty. The ‘CBD’ (if you can call it that) is an absolute ghost town on a Sunday but it didn’t take long for a bunch of thirsty Aussies to find the only establishment open that serves beer. Within hours of arriving in Samoa we were kicking back tasting the local ale and getting to know our new Aiga (Samoan family) These fellow volunteers would turn out to be vital emotional support and who I will spend most of my time with over the next twelve-months.
A typical landscape in Samoa on Sundays, a smoke filled coconut plantation.
The first week was confronting as I realised this island would be my home for the next year and I wouldn’t see Michael for six weeks, he had to wrap up work and attend his best friend’s wedding. The first week was a whirlwind introduction, we had basic language training, safety in Samoa and had moved into our homes all by the following Friday. I was lucky enough to score a room in what I think was the best house on offer – a huge four bedroom home with plenty of room for my dive gear.
Our humble abode, certainly not what I was expecting to be living in.
The house even comes with a guard dog nicknamed Tony Montana, his face and back are covered in scars with what we can only guess is from a machete. Tony is the boss on the block and walks me to work most days, he even defended me from a gang of dogs that tried to attack me in my own compound the other night. His partner in crime is Max, the landlord’s dog who lives behind us. You will rarely see them apart except for when Tony ventures out of the compound because Max is an old softy and knows all to well the perils that lay outside the fenced area.
Tony Montana AKA “Scarface” Photo by: Kate Wilson
Our first weekend in Samoa was spent at the beautiful Lalomanu beach, the epitome of paradise; white sand, clear water, coconut trees, cocktails, cheap beer and accommodation right on the water’s edge.
The infamous Lalomanu, Upolu.
Unfortunately, this area of the island was the worst hit by the 2009 Tsunami that killed 189 people in Western Samoa, American Samoa & Tonga. The impact of the Tsunami can still be seen today, the reef is still recovering and there are a handful of empty villages who decided to leave it all behind and move to higher ground. You will notice all around Samoa that there are tsunami evacuation signs, a sad reminder of the horrible natural disaster they endured not all that long ago. Taufua Beach fales (our home for the night) lost nine people during the tsunami but were determined to rebuild, with the help of the community they were up and running again shortly after.
A tsunami ravaged boat lay in decay on the village beach.
A fale is a basic yet practical traditional Samoan house, built with a raised floor, thatched roof and blinds this maximizes any breeze which is needed in this tropical climate. Luxuries included a mattress and mosquito net from which you can literally roll into the ocean from.
Our hosts (Taufua Fales) were more than welcoming and not only are these fales located in one of the most stunning parts of the island but they also boast one of the best fia fia dance nights on the island.
A lot has happened since that first week and it all feels a lifetime ago, six weeks into my twelve-month assignment and I’m running on Island time and loving it! My first impression of Samoa was love at first sight. Everything about this place reminds me of Panama, the landscape, the fruit, the buses and the buildings.
The buses in Samoa are very reminiscent of those in Panama, having both received decommissioned US school buses and ‘Beautifying’ them.
The most immediate difference was the language. Most people in Apia speak English, this makes it extremely hard to learn the local language especially when everyone wants to brush up their English skills on me. This has led to some very awkward conversations. Samoans can be very forward, the first set of questions are usually “Are you married? Why not? Do you have kids? Where is your house here in Samoa? Who do you live with? You live with three men? Where are you from? Oh I have a cousin/uncle/aunt in Sydney. Do you have a boyfriend? Is he Samoan? No? Do you want a Samoan Boyfriend?” at first I was a little taken back at the thought of sharing all of this information with someone I had only just met but you learn very quickly that this is how it’s done here and can be very funny when you try to ask the same questions back.
Body language is also something that can be very easily confused here, a shrug of the eyebrows, a grunt, a puckering or hissing sound can be used for anything from ordering a five course meal to getting peoples attention miles across town without a single spoken word. I have already adapted to the eyebrow raise and use it a lot when pointing and agreeing with someone. I have also succumb to eating with my hands, it took me all of a week to ditch the plastic forks and join my colleagues. Cutting taro up with a plastic knife and fork just doesn’t ‘cut it’, my colleagues got a great deal of amusement watching me try for the first week, especially when I snapped my plastic knife.
Eating is another very different event in Samoa, there are various grunts, burps and sniffs, it’s almost like who ever makes the most noise while eating wins. It’s just how it’s done, like many cultures around the world. It’s amazing how quick people rub off on you, I have found myself doing all the above and wonder what people will think when I return home in six months and find my myself sub-consciously eating with my hands, shrugging my eyebrows at them and grunting while eating. It is such a relaxed way of life and I constantly find myself wondering how I will return to the rat race.”
Stay tuned for the next installment of my Samoan sea change, in the meantime here are some snaps from the luscious jungles around Samoa.
Just the standard scene you will see when driving around Samoa, Falefa Falls, Upolu.
Looking out over yet another waterfall in Samoa.
Weekly shopping done the local markets, coconuts, rambutan, banana, papayas and the biggest Avocados I have ever seen!
The stunning Manase beach on the big island of Savai’i