Arriving in Āpia

June 3, 2023
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BEFORE I got to American Sāmoa, and afterward as well, I was on Upolu: the most populated island of the Independent State of Sāmoa, formerly known as Western Sāmoa.

The Independent State of Sāmoa. Map data ©2023 Google, north at top.

The two main islands of the Independent State are Savai‘i and Upolu.

As you can see, Savai‘i and Upolu are a lot bigger than the islands of American Sāmoa. In fact, they are quite big by the standards of the tropical islands of the South Pacific as a whole.

The Independent State of Sāmoa has a distinctive flag.

Flag of the Independent State of Sāmoa. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

The total population of the Independent State is a bit over 205,000, of whom about 150,000 live on the smaller of the two main islands, Upolu, and nearly everyone else on Savai‘i. There are another 55,000 in American Sāmoa. Hundreds of thousands of Sāmoans also live elsewhere, in New Zealand, the USA and Australia.

Āpia, the capital of the Independent State, is where I arrived on my flight from Auckland. Built around a harbour on the northern coast of Upolu, Āpia is the only city in the Independent State. It has a population of about 36,000.

Āpia and environs. Map data ©2023 Google, north at top.

A good place to start your holiday is down on the waterfront, the Edge Marina Sāmoa, where you can watch the sun go down and enjoy the nightlife.

The Edge is right next to the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, an amazing blue hole that gives an extraordinary snorkelling and diving experience. A little further over is the Taumeasina Island Resort,

The Palolo Deep Marine Reserve and Taumeasina Island Resort in relation to the Edge Marina Sāmoa, the Sāmoa Cultural Village and Aggie Grey’s in downtown Āpia. Imagery ©2023 Maxar Technologies, TerraMetrics, Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, CNES/Airbus. Map data ©2023 Google.

A selfie at Taumeasina

The Taumeasina Island Resort

Looking out to sea from the Resort

Looking landward from the Island

I made a video of the bridge over to the island, and of the nightlife and sunset over the harbour as well.

At Taumeasina, I saw a kava ceremony, known here as ‘ava: a social get-together around a bowl of the mildly intoxicating drink of the same name made from a peppery root.

The taste is rather medicinal, and if you overdo it you end up temporarily paralysed from the waist down, which may be where the colloquialism ‘legless’ comes from.

Sāmoan society is quite conservative and traditional. So, I imagine that getting legless and having to be carried home is frowned upon.

Although the plants used for tropical Pacific kava ceremonies do not grow in New Zealand, the Māori word kawa, meaning ceremony or protocol, comes from the same source.

There was a great raw tuna dish at the Taumeasina Island Resort: tuna marinated in pawpaw and chili, with taro chips. The Hideaway Bar next to Taumeasina is where the locals drink.

The Hideaway Bar

Here is a map of the more immediate downtown area, which shows some of the places I will talk about in the next few paragraphs including the Nourish Cafe, the Sāmoa Cultural Village, Aggie Grey’s, and the Āpia Town Clock Tower.

Downtown Āpia. Map data ©2023 Google, north at top.

Unlike American Sāmoa, the Independent State, or Āpia at any rate, has a lot of really good cafés that serve proper coffee. I went to Nourish Café (which is vegetarian), and Milani Caffé and Café 1962, both of which also offer great food, to name a few!

The most famous and historic hotel in Āpia is Aggie Grey’s, now part of the Sheraton group. It is named after the most famous businesswoman on the islands in the 1930s, the daughter of an English chemist and his Sāmoan wife, who opened it in 1933. In the old days, movie stars used to stay there whenever they were making a film about the South Pacific.

A must-see is the Sāmoa Cultural Village. I only got to see it on my last day there, as it is only open from Tuesdays to Fridays, so it is a good idea to plan to be in Āpia during that part of the week.

The Cultural Show about to begin

You get songs, the traditional way of life and dress, an introduction to the chiefly (matai) system, and the way that things have changed in modern-day Sāmoa.

Making ceremonial staffs

You can see real live tattooing as the people are getting it done, wriggling in pain, as it is done the old-fashioned way with a sort of hammer and chisel arrangement.

Tatau is what the process is called in Sāmoan. That is the origin of our word tattoo, meaning skin markings, as opposed to the night-time military parade also called a tattoo.

(That has an equally colourful origin by the way. It literally means ‘tap to’, meaning taps off. The military police would go about with flaming torches at closing time and yank the soldiers out of the pubs. But I digress.)

Apparently, the fact that the tatau is painful is all part of the initiation. As with the Māori the male tattoo, called pe‘a in Sāmoa, is more extensive and generally more of an ordeal than the female tattoo, called malu.

Pe‘a literally means ‘bat’: it refers to the way some of the designs evoke an image of a bat. The more strictly correct name for the male tattoo, in a form of the language spoken in the presence of chiefs, is malofie. But pe‘a is the everyday expression.

Today’s Independent State was ruled by Germany between 1900 and 1914. I will have more to say about this in next week’s post, as it is quite an interesting historical period. Anyhow, during German rule, the first governor, Wilhelm Solf, and some of his assistants actually submitted to getting the pe‘a, presumably so that the locals would not think the white man was a wimp.

(However, the subsequent New Zealand administrators, who ruled the former German Sāmoa from 1914 to 1962, don’t seem to have gone the extra mile in that regard.)

Here is a video I made of dances at the Cultural Village, beginning with the energetic Ailao Afi or Sāmoan Fire Knife Dance, followed by two more sedate pieces and ending with a scene showing the preparation of a fish for the umu, a ceremonial feast cooked in an earth oven.

The umu uses the same method as a Māori hāngi, where being cooked slowly in leaves over hot rocks in the ground gives the food a smokey, pine-resin-like flavour. In Māori, umu means the earth oven itself. But in Sāmoa, umu means the whole feast. Of which the most exciting moment, in either country, is the moment when, after hours of slow cooking, the food is dug up out of the steaming earth.

Preparing the Umu

At the Sāmoan umu, there is coconut in banana leaves, taro, and fish. Taufolo, or mashed breadfruit in coconut cream or coconut caramel sauce. And fa‘ausi, which is dense coconut bread made with talo (taro) or other starchy ingredients, also in a coconut caramel sauce. And marinated taro.

Another popular and really iconic Sāmoan dish you get to try is palusami, consisting of corned beef, coconut milk, and taro leaves, all baked together. I will have to make this myself, as you can buy taro leaves in Auckland. However, you need to be careful as raw taro leaves are poisonous and must be cooked for a long time to neutralise the poison. The stalks and the parts of the leaves nearest the stalk are even more poisonous and need to be discarded. My editor once had some palusami that had been improperly prepared and it burned his mouth. Apparently, that is the least worst thing that can happen.

You can use spinach as a substitute, but this leaves it a bit bland, as the thing about taro leaves is that they are highly flavourful in ways that vary between nutty and bitter depending on the variety.

If I chicken out on taro I might use the Māori vegetable pūhā instead, as it is roughly as flavourful as taro leaves and doesn’t require this long-cooking-to-kill-the-poison bit. Actually, that would be an interesting recipe to try: I don’t know if anyone has ever made a pūhā palusami!

Palusami is also known as luau, the term used in Hawai‘i. Luau pīpī means palusami, or luau, that is made with chicken. I am not sure what vaimoa is, but mamoe is a meat stir fry, and faiai‘ia is mackerel prepared with lots of chopped onions and coconut cream. This is a really good way to prepare canned mackerel, which is very cheap but also very ho-hum by itself. Obviously, with the addition of coconut and onions, it will be delicious. Oka is a raw fish dish prepared with coconut. Most Sāmoan cuisine involves coconut in one way or another.

Oka at an outdoor café

Another thing at the cultural village is that you get to weave your own flax plate to eat the umu food on. Which again is the traditional way it was done in Aotearoa: it’s a good thing I learned how to do all that in school!

Weaving plates

And they had the ‘ava ceremony as well.

All this only costs 10 Tālā. It is a good idea to set aside three hours.

On the 25th of April, I went to an Anzac Day dawn service by the Āpia Town Clock Tower. Anzac is short for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps: it commemorates the landing of Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli in World War One. As such, Anzac Day does not have much to do with Sāmoa, but it is commemorated all the same, no doubt because New Zealand ruled the future Independent State for several decades.

The Independent State also celebrates Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day as public holidays and several other public holidays, as set out in the Public Holidays Act 2008. The Royal Sāmoan Police Band also marches by the clock tower at 9 am each weekday, so it is worth keeping an eye out for that.

The Town Clocktower, on Anzac Day morning

(Even though the Independent State is effectively a republic, with a Head of State elected by Parliament, the band is still called the Royal Sāmoan Police Band or RSPB for short. There are no armed forces, so the RSPB plays on state occasions as well.)

Āpia has undergone a lot of development since Sāmoa was hit by two cyclones in 1990 and 1991 and an earthquake in 2009, which prompted the rebuilding of the local Catholic cathedral into an even more impressive structure, reopened in 2014.

Much of the development aid has been provided by China, which built a new government complex to replace scattered and deteriorating offices. China has also built new roads. However, a US $100 million plan whereby China would redevelop the port was turned down by the newly-elected government of Fiame Naomi Mata‘afa in 2021, on the grounds that it would leave Sāmoa excessively in hock.

I ended up staying at a place called Karl’s Getaway, toward the outskirts of town on the Cross Island Road that runs southward out of Āpia, and having breakfast at a nearby place called Lynn’s Getaway, which is part of the same enterprise. Clearly, Sāmoa is the place to get away from it all!

The location of Lynn’s Getaway (on two sites) and Karl’s Getaway. Map data ©2023 Google, north at top.

The location was very handy, near Lynn’s Supermarket, Giordano’s Pizzeria Sāmoa (which has great salads) and the Café 1962, named after the year of Western Sāmoa’s independence from New Zealand. I am glad I stayed at Karl’s Getaway. My first room was a bit noisy due to young partying tourists, so they got me another one. It is a family-run hotel, with friendly staff and the owner, Karl. Karl’s mother Lynn Netzler, who held the chiefly title of Mataiʻa, was a founder of the National Bank of Sāmoa: she had died the previous year, regrettably.

Further along Cross Island Road, up a little track to the left at Papauta, is the Mailelani Sāmoa Body Care factory and shop. They mostly make lotions and natural body care products from coconuts. You can buy Mailelani products in other countries including the USA, Australia and New Zealand if you know where to look, or online, but this is the original source.

The Mailelani Sāmoa Body Care factory and shop

Next week, I will continue my discussion of Āpia, heading further along Cross Island Road to Vailima, the last resting place of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. I will also look into some more of the history of Sāmoa, and conclude with my thoughts about Sāmoa as compared to some of the busier holiday destinations, such as Bali.

Finally, as I publish this post, I would like to note that am publishing it a couple of days before the end of Sāmoan Language Week 2023 in Aotearoa New Zealand. So, it definitely did have to be another Sāmoa post this week!

For more, read Arriving in Āpia (Part 2): Visiting Vailima and Confronting Colonialism.


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