Travelling Light : Samoa and tourism triste

Beach blanket bathos on the beach

by James Robinson

New Zealand has a close relationship with Samoa ; Samoa, to us, is a little bit like Mexico is to the USA, but cleansed of most of the overt legislative and racial tension. It is one of few places where a Waikato Chiefs Super 14 shirt is worn with similar cultural cachet as a Los Angeles Lakers singlet. It is one of few places where New Zealand seems an oasis of big-city opportunity. In return for this cultural and migratory aspiration, an element of respect and protectiveness developed.

But for those of us hooked into slavishly non-refundable ticketing conditions, as part of an attempt to be part of the approximately fifty thousand people each year who journey to Samoa for an island getaway (in the process depositing in the country roughly half of the nation’s annual GDP) the events of September 30, 2009 were an occasion of selfish agony. Maps were checked against news reports to try and place the destruction against intended holiday destinations. Cost estimates were done on rebooking fees and cancellation penalties. A lack of travel insurance was bemoaned. New hotels were priced. Samoa was placed on the New Zealand government’s travel warning list. The process was futile. There was no super-speed internet pumping out damage reports. We just had to sit about, and wait for the word.

Sure, we felt tremendously sorry for our friends in Samoa and the mass-destruction being re-played before us. But we also had to contend with the fact that on some not too hidden level, we felt sorry for ourselves. There’s nothing more symbolically pampered than affording yourself the luxury of an island vacation. There’s nothing more cruel than a small defenceless nation rocked by a natural upheaval with no meaning or reason. The world had seemingly shat on Samoa (blunt, but true). We wanted a holiday.

Friends seemed to be putting forward the view that it would be wrong to enjoy an island vacation, even in a safe and un-affected area of Samoa. We thought about volunteering – only to quickly discover that ad hoc volunteering is an undesirable proposition to aid agencies, all of whom stay well clear of combining altruism with the vacation spirit.

The dust settled. And tourists were quickly urged to return. We rebooked for the less inhabited but geographically larger island of Savaii. Our working class guilt banished by the idea that not only were we right to continue as planned with our holiday, we were doing the country a needed service.

Understandably, the pretext the tsunami provided to our vacation was unavoidable. I can understand though that I was probably one of the few people who was concerned with keeping an eye-out for an existing pretext to a vacation. I commented extensively on the lack of tourists on the flight over (a contentious link to draw, as it was discovered later that we were going at the cusp of peak travel-time and the rainy season). Un-mistakable, though, were the level of memorial t-shirts and large wreaths present at check-in. While sombre, they were tortuous to check-in behind.

Samoa is across the dateline, but there is no time-lapse between our two-countries. It leaves for a severe sense of confusion as to what day of the week it is, worsened only by a week of glorious aimlessness. It also provides for the ultimate opening for a string of banal “same shit, different day” jokes. Anything I guess, to take your attention away from the stifling humidity. It was 28 degrees and raining.

Our new destination was Manase – situated on the western island of Savai’i. To get there you take a taxi from the airport, to a ferry, to a bus. Our taxi driver was jovial, “Savai’i eh? No tsunami. Good idea” he remarked with a chortle. He talked of the Hurricanes like his knowledge was a badge into a secret world.

The ferry was slightly less pleasant, and we discovered on our bumpy crossing that Samoans have the knack of napping openly in public, even in generally unpleasant circumstances. The bus from Saleolaga, Savai’i (the first time it really dawned on me much more third world Samoa is than you realise) was hyper-real. A constructed wooden body, eccentrically painted – sat on top of monster-truck wheels and a large, loud engine. Samoa-time was a discovery. Our bus driver assured us that we were on the right bus to get to Manase, but in the process drove around in near endless circles and made languid thirty-minute stops.

The bus filled up to a level probably illegal in most-other countries with a greater attention to road-rules. I was reminded closely of the usually recurring scene in most “white guy goes to Africa” movies (The Air Up There is the archetype of what I am thinking of here), where the bourgeois tourist is thrust into third world public transport to comic dismay.

Eventually, eventually, we arrived in Manase. We were very ready to arrive; it was about six hours airport to destination, most of which wasn’t filled with successful transit. The journey was filled however, with entertaining people watching. Samoans are collegial and friendly, gossiping and laughing wildly in large groups, with people who appeared to be strangers. As it would transpire, one of the defining memories of the trip was the relentless friendliness of Samoans. It is nice to walk among pleasant villages with friendly strangers waving out, always pleased to see you.

Manase is exactly as the photo depicts. Even better. That said – there was little in Manase that could’ve obscured the promotional material. There’s the golden sandy beach, dotted for a mile or two with fale accommodation (a simple wooden hut with a room, a deck and a bed – not really built to last in the face of any onslaught from the looming ocean). The water is blue/ blue. And warm. Then there’s the road and houses set back from the beach. And then there’s a hill.

There was little to distract us from doing nothing. The heat was fierce. And when you got out to the road the temperature seemed to rise by ten degrees. Occasional stores broke-up the stretch of road, but invariably you aimed for the closest one. An ambitious day was setting off for the resort forty-minutes on foot up the road. Locals tended to look at you incredulously when strolling through extreme midday heat, opting instead for the shade of their fales. Many napped the hot hours of the day away, on their backs, sprawled out in open-walled structures for anyone to view their enthusiastic slumber.

Breakfast was served at eight. Dinner at six. There were few tourists around, and tentative friendships were struck up – largely due to the communal meal environment. We always had the tsunami to fall back on if we ever ran out of conversation. One traveler had been through the affected part of Savai’i and reported back that not a lot had been rebuilt.

Except for a day circumnavigating the island – our efforts fell mostly towards cards, sunbathing, drinking during the daytime, napping and swimming. For a change of scene we’d occasionally stroll ten minutes to a small little bar/hut run by a strange middle-aged man named Raci, who was of generically European descent. Raci appeared to be living the island dream/cliché. We enjoyed speculating as to what led Raci to settle up in one of the most remote and out of the way places possible (bank-robbery? Sob-worthy tragedy?) Raci was as close as Manase had to a magnate; owning the only independent bar, and the local internet café. As such, it was a little mean that he bemoaned the lack of education in the new Samoan fear of the tsunami in Manase -when it is in area completely out of harms way from such affairs.

It is easy to be the king of knowledge when you’re the only guy in town with an internet connection.

Our vacation ended. And we had to stop pretending like this life of leisure was our natural reality. We used our final day to trade small-village living for some time in the bright lights of Apia. Apia was slightly horrible – a dirty, mess of a town. That bought us back down to earth.

And then home. And the looks of everyone when they found out you’d been in Samoa. “Samoa eh? Did you book that before the tsunami? How’d that work out?” They’d say with a cocked eyebrow, and a smirk.

All up, I think it worked out fine. Minus the whole tsunami thing, of course. ENDS