Day M101: Yo-Ho-Ho And A Bottle of Rum

Fri 06.01.12:

We reached Apia, the capital of Samoa, on Friday afternoon. Like Fiji, Samoa is in the clutches of the rainy season, but I didn’t mind – it’s what makes it all so delightfully green! How the captain, the pilot and the helmsman managed to steer the ship into a parking space I’d have trouble getting into in a Ford Fiesta I’ll never know, but here we are, a ship with space for 1,080 containers squeezed into a dock just 40 metres wide. Eat your heart out, Doctor Who.

After customs had come and gone, Captain Andriy and I set out with the port agent, Richard, for a little bit of exploration. Taking us up along the narrow peninsular that separates Apia Harbour from Vaiusu Bay, we passed the promenade, the parliament building, the clock tower roundabout, the tombs of Malietoa Laupepa and Malietoa Tanumafili I (whoever they are) and ended up at the Metrological Station on the northern tip. There we met with the guys whose job it is to predict the weather, look out for cyclones and issue tsunami warnings. Is global warming a threat to Samoa? Of course it is. Are global weather trends becoming more extreme? An emphatic yes. Should we have set strong emission targets in Durban last month? What do you think?

After saying goodbye to the weathermen, we headed back down the peninsular and snapped a photo of your humble narrator standing in front of the ‘New Date Line’ sign on the middle of the clocktower roundabout. You see, Samoa didn’t have a Friday last week. In fact, today is their first Friday since December 23.

As Samoa is in the Western Hemisphere, just to the right of the International Date Line, it has always been lumped with a time zone of GMT -10. As most trade to and from Samoa goes via Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand and Australia, all of whom are on the left of the International Date Line, this creates the following dilemma: when it’s Friday in Samoa, it’s Saturday in New Zealand: no international trade is likely. When it’s Sunday in Samoa it’s Monday in New Zealand: again, unless the (deeply religious) Samoans are prepared to go into the office on Sunday (here’s a clue: they’re not), you lose another day of possible trade, leaving you with only three days a week in which anything can get done.

So, in keeping with the Samoan government’s policy of pushing for greater integration with the rest of Oceania (three years ago they switched from driving on the right to driving on the left, bringing them in line with Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and PNG), last week they skipped a day – December 30 – and redrew the International Date Line in the process.

Samoa now officially stands at GMT+13, but as they are currently using daylight savings time, it’s effectively GMT+14: the last of the ‘plus’ time zones available. They took the New Zealand territory of Tokelau with them, leaving just American Samoa, Nuie and The Cook Islands on the ‘later’ side of the Date Line. Samoa is now one of the first places on Earth to see the sun rise at the start of a brand new day, and, perversely, American Samoa is the last to see the sun set. So if you want one day to last 48 hours, this is now the place to be.

The captain had told the owner of Paddles Bar and Restaurant that we would be dropping in, so we said goodbye to Richard and headed over to the road, running into Filipe, the ship’s Fijian steward, along on the way. Captain Andriy asked Filipe to join us for drinks and so began a great Friday night out in Apia. After getting trolleyed in Paddles, we moved next door for a few more bevies before moving on to the new-fangled Yacht Club just a stone’s throw from the port. We got chatting with locals, ex-pats, tourists and vagabonds and I have to admit that I’m getting a warm fuzzy feeling about Samoa.

Day M102: Treasured Island

Sat 07.01.12:

Samoa! What an awesome place! Captain Andriy had me up at 10am to head over to Valima, the home of the great Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, the chap wot wrote Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Taking Filipe the ship’s steward with us, we met with Richard the local port agent and hit the road into the interior.

Back in the 1890s, Robert Louis Stevenson’s health was waning and he believed that a more tropical clime would be conducive to his general well-being, or at least more conducive than the frigid night air of the Scottish highlands or the smog-laden streets of London at the height of the industrial revolution.

When Stevenson visited Samoa in the 1880s, it was love at first sight. He built a home for himself and his family in the middle of a beautiful forest clearing in the village of Valima. Stevenson lived with his wife and step-daughter in Valima for the last four years of his life, bringing with him his not inconsiderable talent for telling stories. The local people soon fell in love with Stevenson, one of the few white men to turn up in these parts who was genuinely interested in the ancient culture of Samoa and who wasn’t there to plunder the natural resources, enslave the population or convert the islanders to one of the many competing flavours of Christianity. His native name was Tusitala, “the teller of tales”. By the time of his death in 1894, Stevenson was so adored by the people of ‘Upolu that they spent the proceeding three days cutting a path from Valima to the top of nearby mount Vaea: a not inconsiderable task, considering the mountain was over 500 metres above sea level and covered in dense jungle foliage.

The people of ‘Upolu lined the path. Pretty much every single islander turned out for the funeral. The Samoans passed Stevenson’s coffin from person to person all the way from Stevenson’s house to the top of the mount, which should give you an idea of how many people were in attendance. And there, looking out over his treasured island, Robert Louis Stevenson remains until this very day.

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

This self-penned eulogy was translated into Samoan and is still used to this very day as a song of mourning for the loss of loved ones. This beautiful story was only matched by the beauty of the house itself: Valima, a place so magical that the Samoans named their national beer after it. We were given a tour of the place by a softly-spoken local girl who guided us through the many airy, sunlit rooms from a time when humans still had the capability to render beauty in three dimensions. Valima is a place where life slows down to the speed of the specks of dust floating in a sunbeam, and here we are, nestled in tranquil gardens a million miles from anywhere, a perfect retreat for any aspiring weaver of tales both tall and short.

After Valima, Richard took myself, Captain Andriy and Filipe up to the Papapapaitai Falls (which I had fun singing in the style of Pearl & Dean’s Asteroid), a magnificent cataract slap bang in the middle of the island. Then we pressed on to the south coast, through villages and towns. Traditional Samoan houses have no walls, just a roof held up by thin wooden pillars and heavy fabric ‘curtains’ which can be unfurled should the occupants require a little bit of privacy, perhaps to make more Samoans.

The Samoan outlook is so diametrically opposed to the typically American paranoid view of the world (‘everybody is trying to kill me and steal my stuff!’) that I’m rather looking forward to seeing American Samoa – will there be alarm systems on people’s curtains? Will guard dogs understand human territory that is not demarcated by a ruddy great big concrete security wall? Will these simple huts be fitted with a panic room? We’ll have to wait and see.

After lunch in a splendid coastal resort, decked out in traditional Samoan architectural styling, we drove along the mighty wind-swept coast of this rather remarkable dot in the Pacific Ocean. Waves travel uninterrupted for thousands of miles east from Australia, west from South America, south from Russia just to dash themselves on these shores. The people of Samoa, like all Pacific natives, are the descendants of the Lapita, brave souls who ventured out 2,000 years ago from what is now Taiwan with nothing but an outrigger canoe, balls of steel and an incredible knowledge of the sea. There are still people alive today who can tell you which way to find land just by observing the shape of the waves. And find land they did, populating not only Samoa, but Palau, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Nauru, The Marshall Islands, Hawaii, The Gilbert Group, the Line Islands, the Phoenix Islands, Tuvalu, Wallis and Fortuna, The Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, American Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Nuie, Tokelau, The Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Pitcairn, Henderson and – yes – even as far east as Easter Island, ten times closer to Chile than what it is to Taiwan. These guys explored millions of square miles of the biggest and most dangerous ocean on Earth 1,500 years before the Pinta, Nina and Santa Maria even dreamt of crossed the Atlantic.

Needless to say, these guys had some mad skills.

As evening draw near, Richard dropped us off at the port and after a hearty farewell, Filipe and I hit the town. As the ship was scheduled to leave at 4am, Captain Andriy could not join us as he had ship’s business to conduct. I had sent out a few CouchSurfing ‘let’s meet up for a beer’ requests, and one requestee, a Brit named Jenny had responded. She met us in Paddles bar and was one of those fascinating people raised in foreign lands, in her case East Africa, blessed with a view of the world that too few of us share – the not-so-secret knowledge that we’re all in this together and that the oh-dearism, it’s a long-way-from-here-ism and they’re-their-own-worst-enemy-ism is the thinking of dinosaurs and scoundrels. Her dad works for the United Nations which segued into a delightfully heated debate about the net worth of the UN (my estimation: zero). Jenny was due to join her mates for din-dins, and as Filipe and I had already grabbed some tucker on board the Lily, we said our goodbyes and headed up the road to Club X, which was surprisingly (and somewhat disappointingly) not a strip joint.

There Filipe and I met with Bill, the ship’s fourth engineer, and the three of us flung ourselves (with heroic disregard for our own safety or indeed sanity) headlong into the Beer Vortex. Huzzah! A great end to a great day.

Looking for somewhere to get away from it all and write the next great American novel? One word for you, Benjamin: Samoa.

Day M103: A Tale of Two Sundays

Sun 08.01.12:

As the good ship Southern Lily 2 was scheduled to be leaving Apia in the wee small hours I left my passport in the ship’s office with a note saying “this is my passport, please do not wake me unless strictly necessary”. As I was three sheets to the wind when I wrote this note, I had no recollection of the event the next day when for a terrifying few moments I thought I had lost my passport somewhere in the midst of last night’s ridiculousness.

I need not have worried, for not only had my passport not gone anywhere, neither had the ship. Since Samoa is still quite a god-fearing country, the loading operation stopped last night at midnight for the Sabbath Day. My hopes of having a Saturday night in Samoa, crossing the International Dateline and having another Saturday night in American Samoa were dashed like sailors on siren-infested rocks. Instead, I would have to brace myself for A Tale of Two Sundays.

Apia on Sunday is a quiet little place. The weather, still not playing ball, was content to spend the day in a drizzle-soaked mist. I spent the day strolling along the promenade and looking for somewhere that was open. The Italian Kitchen and Aggie Grey’s (presumably the Pacific counterpart of Maggie May’s) breached the Sunday trading rules, but aside from that everywhere was bus-up-shut.

I felt like I was in one of those situations in which you say goodbye to a good friend only to have to hang around for another hour or so because the bus doesn’t leave. Without any easy way of getting around the island and utterly failing to find the Yacht Club (which I’m assured was open), I was content to spend the day beavering away on my laptop, cut off from the outside world. Sans phone, sans internet, sans problemo.