Archive for the 'Samoa Travel Log' Category

Samoa, Matafa’a, village life

Jon Ross on Apr 18th 2012


Happy post-Easter.  Here in Samoa it’s an all-weekend holiday of church-going and pageants by the children.  Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday—no work, but events, food, church, and more food.

Living in the village for so long has enabled me to see yet another layer of the culture and aspects of a small community, as individual personalities become apparent, and people start really talking to me. (Trying to, anyway.)

Because the church is so important in the community, I go to church on Sunday.  My palagi clothes were messing up their coordinated costumes, so they found some extra duds for me.  When in rome…  (That’s an Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo shirt, by the way.  Where they got it I have no idea.)

Also, the chief council has decided to bestow a title on me, I will be a matai in this village—which basically means I can come and go as I please, have a place to sleep and food to eat, have a say in village decisions (I wonder if I can Skype into the to’onai :0)  ) and can order “untitled” people around—which I  do anyway  :0) , not to mention always get a table at the best restaurants without a reservation, and VIP access to the disco.

And, a new baby was named after me.  (Jon Ross and cousin, Lagi, below.)  Go figure.

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Samoa, Matafa’a, village life

Jon Ross on Apr 18th 2012




It turns out that receiving a chief title, becoming a matai, is a much bigger deal than I thought.  If you do not inherit your title, it takes years of community service before they even consider bestowing one on you.  In fact, many Samoans are angry that Prince Charles received a title on a recent visit because he hadn’t really done anything for the country.

Well, luckily, the village council unanimously agreed to make me a chief.  Actually, they decided on “high chief,” which puts me above most of them, and just below only two or three others in the village.  My name, Tupua Tanu Samoa (“Tupua”), is one of the most revered in all of Samoa.

The ceremony itself is like graduation, prom, and bar mitzvah all in one—but without the commemorative yarmulkes.  There are different stages throughout the afternoon, many traditions and rituals (yes, including drinking ava—“kava”), and three costume changes, speeches, eating, dancing, and gifts—from them to me, and from me to them.

It was a little frenetic getting ready—putting on the garb, getting oiled, and entering the fale—because we had had the canoe dedication earlier in the morning.  Here’s what it was like:

Tuilagi helps me put on the special undergarments, which include my surf trunks and a “seat belt,” because he says that, during the dancing, the women might try to rip off my lavalava.

He hustles me from my room into the preparation hall and the first thing that happens is I am slathered in coconut oil by some young women.

Then, the matrons of the village—wives of the other matai—dress me in a fine-matt skirt, flowing lavalava, flower ula (necklace) and headdress.

All the women seem to be enjoying the spectacle of me in the garb.

When I arrive at the community fale with my entourage, everyone is already seated: high chiefs, retired reverends, honored guests, ava servers—and behind them, “untitled” people.

There are many speeches directed at me, and formal monologues directed at no one in particular.

An attendant collects ava sticks from the other high chiefs and presents them to me, then we all drink ava.

After some more speeches comes the food.  You guessed it: taro, palusami, and breadfruit for me, but chicken, fish, pork, and other meaty specialties for the others.

Next, I am downloaded of the major regalia—made a little more comfortable—and the presentation of gifts begins.

Ulas, lavalavas, carved miniature canoes (one from an actual tree we cut down), hand-sewn “aloha” shirts, and other offerings from the villagers.  Most gifts are for me, but some are for my parents—who, it is assumed in this culture, are responsible for all my actions. (How ‘bout in ours?)

As I am receiving the gifts, one of the other chiefs—someone I don’t really know that well—gets up and goes outside and starts shouting at the top of his lungs out over the bay.  It’s almost like Tourettes.  No one pays any attention, though.  I think, Maybe this guy really doesn’t want me to be a matai and he is expressing his displeasure.  Later, Tuilagi explains that it is part of the ceremony and that he was announcing to the other villages, the world, and the universe that there is a new matai in Matafa’a: Tupua Tanu Samoa!

Finally, the music starts and the dancing begins.  First the women, who get me up and moving, then some of the younger “untitled” men.  Although no one rips off my lavalava, or throws me in the bay, things get fun and everyone has a great time with me… Or everyone has a great time making fun of me.

The next day at the to’onai (the chiefs’ lunch), my seating assignment has changed—now, instead of sitting along the side with the other regular chiefs, I sit at the foot of the fale—directly across from Rev. Fepai—with the two other high chiefs.  I really understand my new status when I am third to be served food.

Most people in the village now call me Tupua, and, in kind of sad twist, the younger men are more deferential—no longer the “Hey, Jon, where you go?” of the previous six weeks.  But the little kids still gather around to say hi and hold my hand, and even call me plain old “palagi” when they get overly excited.

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Samoa, Matafa’a, village life

Jon Ross on Apr 11th 2012




So the guys tell me they love to play volleyball.  I’ve played some myself, so I think maybe I’ll join them in a pick up game.  The court is a cracked concrete pad with two uprights anchored in tires and a tattered net.  I think, How good could these guys be?

The game is underway when I arrive.  The rag tag group—guys playing six on six, with a seventh woman serving—in their lavalavas and worn out flip-flops looks pathetic; the court is gravely and riddled with small ankle-twisting potholes.  I sit down to watch.

Once again, I am blown away by the physical prowess of the Samoans—this is the best amateur volleyball game I have ever seen, by far!  It’s like watching the Harlem Globetrotters.  The game is relentlessly fast paced, about 50 percent faster than in the States.  Everyone plays like they are possessed—perfect digs and bumps; quick sets; back-sets; fake spikes; single, double, and triple blocks; and hitters flying in from all directions.  Spikes are going down so hard that the half-dead ball is careening into the jungle or bouncing off the nearby corrugated-metal houses.  There are precious few unforced errors; even well-blocked spikes get dug back up by lightening reflexes and an uncanny sense of position.

As usual, there is no personal aggrandizement—no “claims” or high-fives (and definitely no pats on the butt)—it’s a team effort.  They are certainly having fun—lots of laughing and high spirits—but only stoicism for individual moves.

Needless to say, I remain a spectator, as my skills are rusty at best, and never up to this standard.  The game goes on for two grueling, sweaty, fun hours.  As the sun begins to set, the players spontaneously scatter for dinner.  (There are no “goodbyes” here—people just walk away.)

One last thing, most of the guys who just put on this extraordinary exhibit of athletic skill and stamina had worked in the jungle carving canoes all day!

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Samoa, Matafa’a, village life

Jon Ross on Apr 3rd 2012


Matafa’a, Samoa

Hankering for a cup of hot chocolate?  Grab a can from the shelf and scoop out some powder and add water?  Not so fast, American—like everything else here in the village, making a cup of Koko Samoa—a rich, coffee-like brew—is no simple task.  Here’s how you can approximate the experience at home:

Drive to the local jungle and pick some ripe cocoa pods.

This one’s not ripe, yet; they should be banana-yellow.

Slow roast the seeds on a piece of corrugated metal, stirring continuously for 2 hours.

It helps to have someone else doing it with you so you don’t fall asleep from the tedium, heat, and smoke.

Bust out your family-heirloom mortar and pestle—made by your great-grandfather out of a tropical hardwood tree and a stone from the sea.

Pound vigorously for 20 minutes.  (My arm got tired after two.)

Continue until the perfectly roasted beans turn into an oily, sticky paste.

Make a fire with coconut husks and boil a big kettle of water.

Add a few scoops of your cocoa paste and sugar.

And, voila, an easy 4 hours later and you’re ready for a taste of true hot chocolate—easy peasy, Koko Samoa!

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Samoa, Matafa’a, travel log

Jon Ross on Apr 3rd 2012


One day, Tavae asks me if I want to go to “survivor’s beach.”  Of course, I don’t understand what he’s talking about, because one: I don’t understand what he’s talking about, and two: I don’t watch TV, so I have no idea that they filmed a couple of “Survivor” shows in Samoa.  Well, it turns out that the “Survivor” beach is over the mountain behind the village. You can get most of the way to it by car from the other direction, but from isolated Matafa’a, of course, it’s a rugged climb up steep, muddy jungle trails and then down to the beach.

It also turns out that “Survivor” beach is part of Matafa’a village; Tavae’s grandfather “owns” it—which means, at some point, the village chiefs allotted it to his family.  Feeling pretty strong and adventurous, I say, “Let’s go,” and we make a plan to head off early the next morning—Saturday.  At dawn, we are joined by Tuilagi and his brother-in-law—they say they are going to pick taro and breadfruit, but I think they just want to keep an extra eye on me.

Up the nearly vertical trail behind the village we go—the guys take off their sandals for better barefoot traction in the muck; my Vibram Five Finger booties are serving me well.  Even as he sun is just rising, we are drenched in sweat. These guys have been clambering these trails since they were children and they don’t miss a step; I, on the other hand, occasionally slip or stumble, but am keeping up pretty well.  (Let’s see them make the connection to the shuttle at 42nd Street at rush hour!)

Tavae, Mr. Peanut

Escorting me to the top of the mountain, passing wild mushrooms, jungle peanuts, a few big tropical hardwood trees (Tuilagi says, “Good for canoes, but too heavy”—we are all obsessed with canoes), he and his bro-in-law leave me and Tavae to continue to the beach alone.  (Tuilagi says he is going to collect cocoa pods to make fresh roasted cocoa later. See blog about Koko Samoa: “Samoa Slow.”)

Over the crest and down the other side to one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen.  No wonder the “Survivor” people chose the location.  There is even evidence, out on the reef, that there would be good surf if there were a swell.  Considering it took two hours of difficult hiking to get here—it ain’t called “survivor” for nothing—I don’t know if I’d want to try carrying a surfboard, too.  Needless to say, there isn’t another soul within 10 miles… hard miles.

We hang out for a while and swim in the crystal turquoise water, then start the long hike back.  After a rinse and a quick lie-down, I am off to Tuilagi’s to learn how to make cocoa—the Samoa way: starting with the pods.  Koko Samoa, it’s called.

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Samoa, Matafa’a, Sunday, March 25, 2012, village life

Jon Ross on Mar 27th 2012




The incredible experiences are piling up so fast I can’t write about one without the next one happening and clouding the details of the one before.  (I am even breaking the rules by working on my computer on the day of rest.)

Today, after church, I was invited to the chiefs’ lunch, or to’onai, with the leaders of the village—only seven people—five men and two women… and me.

gift from one of the matai

Sitting on “fine mats,” in the main fale overlooking the bay, each leaning against one of the support columns around the perimeter, we are served food on “plates” of fresh breadfruit leaves on top of woven placemats, by young men and women.

to'onai prep area and servers

For me, the palagi (“foreigner”) with strange eating habits, I am limited to taro, breadfruit, palusami (coconut-creamed taro leaves), and cocoa.  The others are served a variety of fish and chicken dishes, as well.  Everything has been collected or caught within the day and prepared in the umu, hot stone “oven.”  The concept of “farm-to-table” would be laughable to the villagers, as what other kind of food is there?  They ask me, “Why you no eat?  Is ‘natural’ Samoan food!”  Since I can actually see the chickens walking around the fale, and the bay where the fish is caught, and the jungle where the rest of the lunch was procured, my answer falls on deaf ears—truly.  Luckily, they probably think it’s a religious thing.

yam, breadfruit, palusami

You eat with your hands and there is no conversation during the meal.  More food keeps arriving and cups are filled until you push your placemat away.  As each person finishes, his set up is removed and a bowl of fresh water brought to wash up.  In another area, off to the side, it’s time for the attendants to eat—fresh food, but also any leftovers of the group.   Their leftovers will go to the chickens, cats, dogs, and back to the ground.

With everyone sated, the talking begins.  (Did I mention I thought working in Samoa was going to be a bit easier than Sri Lanka because English is widely spoken?  Wrong.  English is not well-known in the villages, and not in one as remote as Matafa’a.)  The speeches are incomprehensible to me, but I can see an order in the speaking from highest matai (chief) to lowest, and around again.  I can understand the word “Jon” on occasion, as they are either thanking me or describing the progress of the canoe project, as Rev. Fepai later explains.

The talking lasts for a couple of hours and has the arc of a tropical downpour: fast and furious, then gradually subsiding.  Outside, a true downpour begins (normally, once a day) and sends sheets of water cascading from the roiling grey clouds above the village.  (Rain is so common in Samoa, that no one changes their behavior, in the least, when it happens: people don’t run or cover of put up umbrellas, they just go about whatever they were doing and get wet.)

boys coming home from school soaked

After the speeches wind down, I am told that I do not have to stay.  My hosts are being considerate, but I also think there are more private things to discuss.  Although, I might be wrong, because there is no real concept of “privacy” in Samoan village life—there are no private sleeping rooms, locked doors, or secrets… maybe.   I retire to my room—on Sunday, there is a rule against working, swimming, even playing cards—it’s a day of rest and religious reflection… and eating.  I lie down on my cot under the mosquito net and fall fast asleep in a food coma induced by “natural Samoan taro, palusami, breadfruit, bananas, and cocoa.”

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Samoa, Matafaa, March 2012, village life

Jon Ross on Mar 26th 2012




Matafaa, Samoa

If you’ve ever spent any time in a rural area like this, or on a farm, you know that the romantic notion of a single rooster crowing once at the sign of first light is a fallacy.

Actually, dozens of pesky noisemakers create a cacophonous riot pretty much all morning long—starting way before dawn!

Here, there seems to be a poultry malfunction even in this symphonic standard.

Somehow, at about 4 a.m., one of these Matafaa cocks gets the idea that it’s time to wake up and starts to crow; the others, not to be beaten to the alarm, join in.  This racket goes on for about a half an hour until they all realize that they are about three hours too early, and they stop.  At 7 a.m., they start again—and if one of them happens to be right under your window, you definitely will not be sleeping in.  This crowing persists until the sun is up and everyone in the village is, too.

since we're up... let's run an errand for dad across the bay to Faleseela

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Samoa, March 18, 2012, village life

Jon Ross on Mar 19th 2012




Matafaa, Samoa, 3-17-12

It’s hard to put into words, so much was going on when I arrived at Tuilagi’s house for umu—the traditional meal cooked in a pile of hot stones.

I say this without condescension: it was as if a diorama at the Museum of Natural History came to life—so many traditional activities and tools were in play.  Also, the kitchen—a corrugated metal addition to the main fale—was where, as in all cultures, everyone was congregating—adults, kids, cats, and chickens.  As the humans prepared the food, not an item was wasted, or didn’t get used to feed the next in line in the food chain: chickens got the coconut scrapings, cats got the fish guts, the fire was fueled by the coconuts husks.  At one point, they needed a basket; within minutes, Tuilagi had woven one from a palm frond.

Green bananas and breadfruit were being peeled, coconuts shaved for making the cream for the palusami, and fish gutted.  The coconut shavings were wrung by had over a bowl using a mesh fiber from some local plant. The resulting deliciousness is poured into a “cup” of layered young taro leaves, sealed into a ball with a breadfruit leaf, and finally wrapped in a banana leaf.

These flavor grenades are placed in the umu, along with the taro, breadfruit, and bananas, and left to cook for a half hour.

covering umu (oven)

The palusami that emerges is like heavenly coconut-creamed spinach, but the outer layers of taro leaves have steam-baked into an incredible crispy filo-like wrapping.  It might be called an umu, but I can tell you it’s “yum-u.”  Of course, I was served first, but I insisted that Tuilagi eat at the same time; after we were done, the women fed babies and themselves, then the kids eat, oldest first.

after cooking

It’s a tough life in the structure of village life, so getting older and acquiring status moves you along in the food chain, literally.

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Samoa, Matafaa Village, March 2012

Jon Ross on Mar 19th 2012


Matafaa, Samoa

The other night I was sleeping—early, admittedly, about 9 p.m.—when the door opens and in comes the high chief, the man who brought me the can of corned beef on my first night.  In tow, he had one of his attendants who carried his bag.  I roused to greet him, a bit groggily but with all due respect.

Matafaa from across bay at Faleseela

It turns out that he had heard I was a vegetarian and came to deliver a more appropriate gift: a can of Spaghetti-O’s.  Actually, as much as I love the local taro and palusami, that can, perched on the corner of my writing table, has been looking pretty tempting. I wonder if I should use a machete to open it.

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Samoa, March 16, 2012

Jon Ross on Mar 19th 2012


Salea’a’umua, Samoa, 3-16-12

Meeting up with Nanai from the Community Centered Sustainable Development Project (CCSDP) to visit the village that is the candidate for the fishing kits, we drive along the southern coastal road where towns like Siumu, Aufaga, and Saleapaga whiz by, alternating with jungle and sea views.

We make a few stops so that Nanai can deliver a nautical compass to one village the CCSDP had bought a fishing boat for, and a cook stove and wok for another that is starting a food-service business to provide local schools with hot lunches.  The CCSDP is a regional organization that provides livelihood products and solutions to islanders in this area of the Pacific. Their direct programs reminded me of the way MicroAid works.  When I mentioned this to Nanai, he said wryly, “Yes, but with bigger budgets.”  (The CCSDP was vetted and is funded in part by the U.N Development Programme, which is how we got connected to them.) Every bit helps, and Nanai is happy to guide MicroAid to the beneficiary village of Salea’a’umua on the southeastern coast—the region most devastated by the tsunami in 2009.

representative of the women's council Salea'a'umua

A meeting with representatives from the Women’s Council of the village—they will administer the kits—is pleasant, but reserved, at first.  Nanai explains that when they were told I represented a charity they thought “I was going to give them a car, or something.”  After he translates my description of MicroAid as “our ‘family’ raising money to help their ‘family,’ ” everyone becomes warm and, well, familial.  Young coconuts are hacked open and we discuss the real needs of the village.  I must say, that I am getting used to having an interpreter in places like this, and one as smart as Nanai, can certainly make things easier—nuance being all-important.  Nanai, of course, runs a big organization, and is generously helping us, but he understands and trusts the MicroAid mission.  We’re lucky to have connected with him.

around the corner at Lalomanu

As for the village, we will put together four fishing kits (buying the supplies in Apia) and deliver them to Salea’a’umua so that the 600 villagers will have more opportunities to get out in the water and catch their dinner, or even sell a few extra fish for some much-needed cash.

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