Samoa: Definitely More Than a Cookie

You can walk along the seawall for almost the entire span of the harbor...

Wow! My first weekend in Samoa has been a sunny one, with blue skies and equator-strength sun streaming full force. I haven’t decided if the lower temperature of rainy days is worth the humidity and grey sky…my inclination is always towards sun but considering how intensely the heat slices you down, we’ll see how I feel in a month. The weekend was also full of firsts, starting with my first day of work with SPBD on Friday.

1)  First day of work–To be honest, it was disappointingly slow. I’m sure, or at least I hope, many of my fellow KF17ers can commiserate with getting super excited for your first day and then not doing too much. I showed up at 8:30, shockingly sweaty (lesson learned that taking a taxi to work is advisable in humid climates) and ready for duty. I waited about an hour for the Kiva Coordinator (who is the liaison between Kiva and the MFI) to show up, talked with her for awhile, met everyone in the office, and then sat there for about 6 hours. I alternated between trying to figure out how to make the time productive and just accepting the down time as a consequence of first days, Fridays, and ‘adjustment time.’ I definitely expect next week to be a little more active and am looking forward to shadowing loan officers out in the field!

2) First taro–Or TALO, as they call it here in Samoa! Yes, this is the key to the name of my blog. Taro root is definitely a staple here, and actually used to be the main export until a blight wiped out crops and forced diversification a couple decades ago. I ate a solid lunch of taro with a side of chicken cooked with taro leaves, which was fairly tasty. The taro was cut in half lengthwise and probably baked in an outdoor oven (umu) using hot rocks. I’ve eaten plenty of taro in my life but nothing like this–it was dense, dry, and not even purple! I really had to muscle it to break it apart. Many meals are eaten with your hands, so taro is broken into pieces and used like an edible spoon. Pictures to come.

The things that aren't coconut halves are breadfruit!

3) First breadfruit–The other staple of Samoa is a fruit that grows EVERYWHERE. I doubt if there is a family in Samoa that doesn’t have a breadfruit tree accessible to them. Calling it fruit is a slight misnomer to my Western mind, as breadfruit is not the least sweet. When boiled, it has the consistency of a potato, kind of, and is generally eaten with coconut cream. When baked, it’s a bit lighter and not so mealy. It honestly doesn’t have a taste that I could describe, as it’s quite bland. It does have an interesting look to it, and I think pictures are definitely better than words in this case–I don’t have a great picture right now but will attempt to document it more next time.

4) First booze cruise?–Okay, I don’t know if this counts as a ‘first’ since it’s not like booze cruises are necessarily a staple of Samoa or a benchmark of a Kiva Fellowship…but it happened, and it was hilarious. My host/landlady Flora was kind enough plan entertainment for my first Friday in Samoa. In her words, it was going on a boat that goes out in the harbor, where people can drink or sit or dance or listen to the music or whatever they want. Somehow, this did not translate in my mind immediately to PARTY BOAT (I know, I know. My boyfriend has already mocked my naivete.); instead I thought “Oh, a pleasant evening on the water with a couple of beers and some tunes.”

I'm on a BOAT!

Which is was, to a certain extent. The best part of this experience was the sheer diversity of the crowd on board. My first expectation was for it to be full of tourists, although Flora told me that many locals frequented “Rock da Boat” (this name on the ticket she handed me should have been another strong indicator of what was to come). What I’ve since realized is that Apia is not a tourist destination, being too small for cosmopolitan life and lacking the nice beaches to be home to resorts. Tourists in Samoa might pass through Apia to get to the rest of the country, but they don’t generally linger here.

What I did encounter, then, was an impressive mix of mostly Samoan people, varied in their ages, dress, and commitment to the the booze cruisitude (booze cruise attitude, for the the portmanteau-challenged). Ages ranged from 16-50, dress attire spanned from clubbing–mostly the younger Samoan girls and palagis (white people)–to casual, and everything in between. Booze cruisitudes included sitting down in apparent contemplation, despite the deafening music, and/or chain smoking, to desperately chasing the breeze through the crowd of bodies, to truly embracing the ‘party’ in party boat. This was not a large boat or group by any stretch of the imagination, so the people watching was prime. Of course, this set me up for…

Fellow Pirates, take note: Stevenson himself is buried at the top of this hill. Vailima is further back amongst the smoke.

5) My first Vailima–Aside from being the name of Robert Louis Stevenson’s hillside home in Apia and the name of my high school literary magazine, Vailima is Samoa’s national beer. Oddly, it tastes almost exactly like Bud Light Lime. Manuia! (Cheers!)

6) My first ride on a Samoan bus–Buses in Samoa travel around town as well as around the island. I wouldn’t yet dare to travel on one alone because I’m definitely not familiar with the village names and am fairly confident I would end up on the other side of ‘Upolu. Although there are a few official bus stops in Apia, you can wave buses down anywhere on their route to board and can hop off anywhere. You just rap on the window with a coin and pay as you get off. The other reason I’m not ready to ride a bus alone is because the busses have bench seats (like a school bus), so when it gets crowded, people just stack up sitting on top of each other. I’m told that since I’m on the skinny side (for Samoan standards!) I would probably be a sitter rather than a sit-ee, but I don’t think I’m ready for that yet!

7) My first swim in the South Pacific–The water is warm and shallow, the coral reef creates an epic sight of crashing waves further out from shore than makes sense in my mind (and keeps the sharks out), and you can walk into the water 150-200m from my house. Not much to complain about, although Samoans mostly swim fully dressed so if anyone would like to send me a care package including some board shorts I would not be opposed!

The food situation here has been very interesting. I’ve had some dishes that were quite tasty–like coconut cream mixed with fish and onions, baked in a half-coconut shell in an umu (seen above)–and others that appealed less to my palate, like boiled breadfruit with coconut cream and canned tuna on the side. I can’t figure out if I will get skinny from not finding a lot of things I truly enjoy eating or chunky from the incredibly high-fat dishes that seem to exist. Much of the meat available is quite fatty, and Samoan cooking has no interest in trimming fat before cooking. Additionally, the common staples–rice, taro, breadfruit–are super starchy and eaten in large portions, which I struggle with a bit. I’m more of a protein and veggie person, so while I’m definitely trying everything with enthusiasm right now, I wonder what my daily diet will end up looking like.

Aside from my food adventures and further explorations of the area, my favorite moment might have actually taken place on Friday night. As I sat on a bench at the back of the boat’s upper deck sipping a Vailima, what song should come on but “Empire State of Mind,” a NYC anthem and NYRC fight song! Of course, a huge smile spread over my face and I shouted to Flora, “This is the song my rugby team listens to before we play!” She nodded, but those words were hopelessly inadequate to describe the happiness I felt at hearing that song, sitting on a boat in Apia’s harbor, thousands of miles from any mainland, surrounded by people from a country whose population adds up to a couple of college football stadiums. The contrast between NYC and Apia couldn’t be more drastic.

As I write this, I’m sitting in my living room watching the Vegas 7s. I’ll post when I have internet at work tomorrow. It’s amusing to me that Samoan TV, which has a whopping 3 channels, has shown as much rugby in the last two days as I’ve probably ever watched on TV in the States. The day is sunny and HOT, and I’ve yet to leave the house as the idea of leaving my fan is basically unbearable. Additionally, almost everything in Samoa is closed on Sundays while most families go to church and have a large Sunday lunch. As most of the country is quite religious, it’s taken seriously as a day of rest. Given the heat of the day, and getting ready for my first full work-week, I’m only to happy to oblige.

I think these trees are beautiful, and they're everywhere.

Looooong canoe rowed for competition during some festivals.

All the pictures I take look like postcards because there are palm trees everywhere!

We're a long way from Cape Cod...


6 thoughts on “Samoa: Definitely More Than a Cookie

  1. Hi Adria! My best friend in SF works at a very disadvantaged middle school, and some of her students are Samoan, but have never been there. I’d love to tell a particularly bright/beautiful Samoan 8th grader a little about what I learn from your blog. Thank you for sharing and we’re all sending big hugs!

    • Thanks for reading Ingrid! Big hugs back to everyone. I will definitely write more about the culture and country on a broader scale (vs. my specific experiences) as I spend more time and come to understand it better.

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