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Chris Sayer’s Travel Diary

Friday, 24 Aug 2012

Location: Samoa

MapAt the end of Day One, we are exhausted but exhilarated. It’s been a long day, difficult to know when the day actually began. Probably 24 hours ago in Sydney, waiting for the international flight. It seemed as if we had already stepped on Samoan soil after making our way to the departure gate, as the majority of travellers on the flight appeared to be locals. Indeed, the Virgin Pacific jet was a designated Virgin Samoa flight, and this Samoan arm of Richard Branson’s airline is 50% owned by the Aggie Grey franchise, one of the biggest (if not the biggest) accommodation chain in Samoa. A sure way to guarantee a steady influx of tourists. Still hard to think of a reason for the early morning arrival.
The flight left Sydney at 9pm, and five hours later we were landing in Samoa. The 2am arrival time for us was actually 5am locally, and after a quick passage through Customs, we were on the road to the Sinalei Resort on its own courtesy bus. It was still dark, but the air felt as if it were saturated with humidity. As we drove along, the rising sun gradually revealed our surroundings, as if to heighten the suspense. It wasn’t long before it became apparent that this island country is entirely different what we’re used to in Tasmania.
The houses were sporadically dispersed along the road, set well back but with very few fences defining a boundary. This allowed animals to freely roam along the roadside – dogs, cows, chickens, horses, pigs – all of which our driver had to careful not to hit. And people – locals making their way to work in the dark, at 6 o’clock in the morning. Even school children, waiting for the bus. Must be a long day for them.
More of the Samoan way of life became apparent as the sun rose above the hills to our left. The design of most houses incorporated two distinct living areas, and at the front of usual closed walled house was always a roofed area, open on all four sides, without any attempt to shield the view from the street, offer any form of security against would-be thieves, or keep out insects. Even the walls of the houses incorporated louvered windows, floor to ceiling, and every window was open. Gee, it must get hot here.
Our arrival at the resort was surreal. Being only 6.30 in the morning, there was no-one about. Even the day’s employees were yet to arrive. Our bus driver invited us to have a look around, followed by indulging in their breakfast, by which time we would be able to check in. The Resort has a southerly outlook, with the Pacific Ocean enticing our gaze out to sea. The vegetation made it obvious that we were no longer in Australian climes. The dominant tree was the coconut palm, standing tall, erect, and in vast numbers, stretching along the coast in both directions.
After lunch, we explored some more, and made our way up the driveway towards the main gate. We were approached by an employee, a young guy who assured us that we couldn’t get lost in Samoa. He joined us as we walked, and ended up walking with us for the next hour and a half. His name was Nico, and he lived in the village to the east of the resort called Mullavai. As we walked, he tested his skills at English and ours at understanding it, and he proceeded to convince us that he was obviously proud to show off his home. He was 21, his new wife of last year was 22 and from the Cook Islands, and they were expecting their first child in October. He showed us his church, a large white building with a steeple and a thick rope dangling below, hinting at a bell that would ring every Sunday for their weekly service. He pointed out his home, up on the hill, and I realised that the time was 4.30, and he had finished his day’s work at 3. “Why don’t you go home and leave us to walk back to the resort, we know the way”, I offered him. He flatly refused, as if he had taken responsibility for our safe passage and return. We had just received a lesson in “Fa’a Samoa” – the Samoan Way. These people are so heart-warmingly, unashamedly, and traditionally compassionate to strangers. Nico eventually left us feeling grateful, overwhelmed, and astounded at his instant friendship.
Day two comprised of a tour of the eastern half of the island. Our guide was Sam, a Sinalei employee, and he turned right after driving out of the resort gates, which headed us east. As we hugged the south coast, with the beautiful blue Pacific Ocean to our right and densely wooded forests to our left, we saw evidence of the tsunami from three years ago. Mostly naked slabs of level concrete, suggesting the former presence of a home that had been destroyed and its owner too scared to rebuild in the same place. Sam pointed out clutches of houses on our left, some kilometres away and on much higher ground, where these people had decided to relocate. Some buildings were still in the same state as immediately after the massive wave hit them - weathered, empty, some still had family gravesites at the front.
On several occasions, gangs of youths stood at the roadside, each carrying a long-blade machete. It’s sad indictment of the current world situation that this sight should cause me concern for my safety, but of course I needn’t have worried about the possibility of violence in beautiful peaceful Samoa. Sam explained that the government pays locals in each village to slash their roadside grass, and by the time these guys go from one end of their village precinct to the other, it’s time to start again. Given the rapid growth of vegetation in this tropical climate, that’s not surprising.
We had three swimming opportunities along the way, each in a different but specular setting. Firstly, a huge hole in the ground that had been caused by the roof of a cave collapsing to the floor. The cave has access the sea, thereby containing crystal clear seawater, a luring invitation to go swimming. The catch, however, was the climb down a 30 meter ladder to access it. Once in the water, there was a surreal sensation of being totally enclosed by a sheer rock face covered in vigorously growing vines.
Secondly, the white beach and blue water of Lalomalu, so popular with tourists that the locals have built dozens of platforms covered by a roof, right on the beach. These open sided fales are then hired out to backpackers as cheap accommodation, but with a million dollar view. I had my first snorkel here, just off the beach in only a metre of water, and it revealed more tsunami damage. What once must have been a healthy, thriving forest of coral three years ago, was now a decimated field of rubble. Akin to a cyclone levelling a forest of wooded trees, this underwater destruction was just as devastating as that above ground, but without the tragic loss of life. There were some signs of coral coming back to life, however, with the occasional flourish of colour in the yellows and greens of new coral. The fish, however, were what made it a wonderland. It was like looking into that large, well-kept tank of tropical fish that sometimes adorns the doctor’s surgery, with its array of fish of every colour. Only this fish tank was huge, not contained in any glass, and unfolded before my very snorkel-protected eyes as I floated over them.
The third swim was at the entrance to a cave that was half-filled with fresh water from a spring. Again teeming with fish, who didn’t seem to mind us jumping in and sharing their home with us, much like the all Samoans we had met. Sam lead me into the cave, where it became dark and a little scary. Standing in neck-deep water, he explained what he was about to do, invited me to follow him, donned his snorkel, dived below the surface and disappeared. A little apprehensive, I took a deep breath and followed. As soon as I’d reached the bottom, I saw light, and swam for it. Sam was right, there was a short tunnel that connected this cave to another, and I surfaced on the other side of the wall, inside another cave.
After three days, a typical day at Sinalei resort would be: up, shower, and down to the restaurant for breakfast, an open-sided fale with a view of palm trees, the coastline in both directions, and the Pacific Ocean. High tide isn’t til lunchtime, so while waiting, we take a double kayak and paddle around the bay. A guy had told us that he saw a turtle while out on the bay the day before, but we are not so lucky. Then it’s time for a swim in the 27 degree water (that's warmer than Tassie's air temperature), so Anne has a dip in the bay, and I don a snorkel, face mask and flippers and swim out past the jetty. High tide is essential. If the water level is any lower, I’d be scraping my stomach on the most amazing sight I’ve ever seen. At least, the most amazing sight below water. Just metres from the jetty and the waters-edge restaurant, is a forest of healthy coral, amongst which lives a seemingly infinite number of fish. Hundreds of species, with colours of every bright and stunning hue. Schools of them form a cloud that parts as I swim through. Angel fish, nemo fish, little bright blue fish, tiny iridescent fish. To add to the colour-fest, at the tip of each blue, purple, pink, orange, red, green or yellow branches of coral was a bright blue tip.
I spent hours in the water, so Anne found a table under shelter, shared it with some other residents, and spent the afternoon, ordering, food, coffee, and drinks. We’ve befriended two other couples with whom we’ve spent most of the day, perhaps strangely encompassing three generations. The retired couple are Marion and Alan, ex-pat Brits now living in New Zealand, we’re the middle-aged Taswegians, and the newly-weds from New Zealand, Natalie and David (although Dave is an ex-pat Canadian from New Brunswick, and my diving buddy). Only Dave can fully know what I’ve seen underwater, as words are impossible to convey the beauty and spectacle of the coral and fish-life of this place.
The Samoan urge to assist knows no bounds. Marion is in a wheelchair, and one night we were returning from a little family-owned restaurant further along the beach. It was dark, and sandy, with exposed tree roots, and we were struggling with Marion’s wheelchair. Seemingly, out of nowhere, a local guy appeared, with a torch, and guided us along the path. He then handed over to another local who took control of the wheelchair and helped traverse the sandy beach. Finally reaching the resort boundary, the locals handed us over to a couple of employees, hefty young guys who took Marion’s chair and pushed up the hill, then lifting her, chair and all, over the undulating grassed area to reach a level path. Each helper along the way received a heart-felt “fa’afetai” from us. It was as though they were waiting for us to help.