Upalu, (Western) Samoa

Our first experience in Samoa, in presage of many to come, was being asked to wait. In particular, despite giving our agent ample warning that we were coming and regular ETA updates, our arrival Sunday morning came as a complete surprise to everyone involved. We were asked to wait outside the harbor while the agent sorted out permission for us to anchor, which we did for a couple of hours before giving up and coming in anyway. Once in the mouth of the harbor, we were able to reach Apia port control on VHF and get permission to anchor. The fact that we had to be that close was our first indication that our VHF radio was not working properly, but that’s another story. We got the anchor down, took a look around, and hung our jack lines out to dry.

Monday morning, we waited around for a few hours until a quarantine officer was brought out to our boat to give us COVID tests. We were a little nervous that one of us might pop a positive after Jazz’s sickness under way (thankfully resolved by this point), but we both tested negative and were released to wait for the next phase.

The next phase turned out to be a huge, solid metal boat full of many officials coming out to visit. They refused to tie the boat on, instead opting to hold onto the side of our boat in a way that made them repeatedly hit our little swim platform. They gave both of us many forms to fill out, interrogated us while we tried to fill out the paperwork, and were generally surly until Captain showed his face. He brought out big smiles, even from the most suspicious Customs agent, who asked to take a picture with him. Then it was just a matter of counting all our visible alcohol a couple of times, and cursorily searching the boat a couple of times, before the officials got back in their big metal bathtub of a tub, hit our swim platform a few more times, and headed back to land. At this point, we were assured, we could go to shore, as long as we checked in with immigration on our own later.

So we went to shore, via this slightly fraught dinghy dock in the marina. We attempted to pay for the dinghy dock when we arrived, and were directed to the bar, where we were told that we would have to call some unspecified person. We punted for that day, which resulted in us having to climb around the fence to get back in when we got home; the bar happily gave us instructions to do this common thing safely on the obviously well-worn path. The next day we went next door, where we found a guy trying to repair a dive compressor (unsuccessfully), and he gave us the phone number we needed. The dock turned out to be $50 US a week, almost the most we’ve ever paid, and here’s what we got. Note all the ropes in the water, just begging for a propeller to wrap themselves around. Our best guess is that these are structural; the marina suffered some serious tsunami damage a few years ago. To make this even more Samoa, the dock also required a deposit to get the key, which meant leaving would require yet another interaction where we call and make an appointment. It’s not like you can just walk into the office; there is no office.

A short walk through town (in search of local “Tala” cash and phone cards) brought us by this church/synogogue and an excellent poster. We also found a small sign with a turnip on it, and when there’s a vegetable on a sign, Jazz follows the sign. It pointed down a side alley towards what turned out to be an excellent little cafe called Nourish. They turned out to have the best food, and best coffee, in town, and we would return several times.

Other things we passed: a sign that reminded us of home, and another sign we were much more excited about. It’s about 2.75 tala to the US dollar, so fifty tala for an hour-long massage is pretty good! We stepped in and booked some appointments. 🙂

Jazz also got to take pictures of car signs again. There were some excellent examples here.

The food in Samoa was a real treat after months in French Polynesia. (You’d think that the “French” part would lead to good food, but you would be dead wrong. Aside from Poisson Cru, which Jazz doesn’t eat on account of it being poison, and even Andrew was borderline sick of by the end of three months.) The goods in Apia were sometimes a little odd, but the odds were you’d get something pretty good. One example: Jazz ordered a chicken papaya salad and received a steak and avocado salad, after Andrew had been told that there was no steak left for his quesadilla. Though quality did vary a little, it seemed that almost every restaurant had a real, full-size espresso machine. Paradise.

It was three days after arrival when we finally got the vet to come out to the boat to clear Captain in. Basically this involved coming out to the boat to scan his microchip, as all his papers were in order. The vet was very much not excited about coming out to the boat, especially in our little dinghy. (If you’re not used to the water, riding in a 9-foot inflatable can put you awfully close for comfort.) Her escort, however, was super excited about the whole thing. He got a dinghy ride through the harbor, got to see a sailboat, and got to visit the coolest cat in the universe, so he had a big grin painted on his face the whole time. His phone wouldn’t take photos, and he wanted some, so these were taken at his request to send to him.

Also, “escort”? It seems that it’s not acceptable for a woman to go to someone’s boat unaccompanied. Our male health official came alone, but the vet and our agent’s representative, both female, always appeared with a male tag-along who appeared to have no involvement in the business at hand. It’s been a long time since we’ve been in such an old-fashioned-conservative country.

This was not, however, the final step in our check-in process. We still had to go to the immigration office to get our passports stamped (and fill out a second copy of the arrival cards Customs had apparently not delivered to Immigration). Once checked in, we could apply for a cruising permit, which would allow us to visit harbors other than Apia. After being told (Tuesday) that the one lady who could issue them was out and that we should come back the next day, we handed the project over to our agent, who managed (with a great deal of cajoling from us) to get the paper in hand by the end of Friday. We had expected (based on assurances from our agent that everything would be smooth and easy) to have our checkout paperwork done by then, so we could leave Sunday, but with offices closed for the weekend we accepted that that wasn’t going to happen.

On our first day, Al of SV Ten Gauge paddled by our boat and gave us a lot of advice about getting through the beaurocracy. He and his wife Lucinda took six days to get checked in, and had been waiting for their cruising permit for several weeks. At the time, despite promises to the contrary from our agent, nobody had been issued a cruising permit since re-opening after COVID. Once we were through the checkin process, they invited us over to their boat for a sundowner before the evening’s shows (which are a whole thing that we’ll get to later).

They also gave us a cafe recommendation, mostly because of the iced tea, which we were too caffeinated to try by the time we showed up. Still, we had another good meal in a surprisingly hipster ambiance.

One of the other joys of being back in an English-speaking country is that Jazz can get her local newspapers. And the papers here… well, they’re a lot. From the preacher calling for religion to create divisions in society, to the ad promoting Islam just very directly… there’s a ton of religiosity in Samoa, and it’s common to find a bible quote on your restaurant table, or to be told to have a blessed day.

A couple days after we arrived, Acushnet showed up. They had a slightly faster check-in, having gotten some accelerating tips from our experience (and not packing a cat). Amusingly, Customs wanted to bond their alcohol, but did this by sticking a sticker on the outside of their liquor cabinet. They also tried to stick one of their fridges closed (because it contained beer), but settled for putting the sticker on the edge of the door. Despite declaring more alcohol, we hadn’t gotten any of this slightly silly treatment.

The gang assembled, we rented a car for a couple of days to tour the island. This turned out to be a major project, because Jazz had to call twenty-three different companies (several had multiple different numbers) before finding one with a car available. The highlight of this process: calling a phone number that had been reassigned to a teenage girl, who responded to the question with a slow, aggrieved “O. M. G.” Anyway she found a car, and in preparation for picking it up, we went to the post office to get drivers license endorsements. The post office informed us that as of recently that was no longer the procedure, so we took a taxi ten minutes out of town to find the correct office. We were a couple of minutes late for their nominal 3pm closing, but the lady running it was really nice and shuffled us through the various steps, and we left with the proper paperwork in hand.

On our way to pick up the car, we passed through a parade. This seemed to be to do with the Miss Samoa pageant, which was a couple of days away.

Some other sites along the walk that are typical Samoa: a “fale”, sort of like a giant pagoda used for meetings and family gatherings, and (originally) for sleeping, with family graves in the yard right out front. Second picture, an elevated trash receptacle, to keep the rats out. And finally, the colonial house turned hotel where we picked up the car.

Our first stop on the drive was to deliver a postcard that Acushnet had been handed in the Galapagos. We had a nice time chatting with the two ladies who ran a slightly run-down guesthouse. By that time it was almost time for lunch, and we stopped for genuine honest-to-Santa Indian food! A luxury that had not been available to us since… we’re not even sure when. At least a year, likely more.

Next stop, we visited the Samoan home of Robert Louis Stevenson, aka Tusitala, “teller of tales”. He lived the last five years of his life in Samoa, during which time he wrote twelve books. Most of the tour revolves around how much the locals loved the guy, and they still seem really proud to have had him live there. The residence was refurbished a few years ago thanks to a five million dollar donation from some devoted Mormon fans.

Our next stop that evening was the Papase’ea sliding rocks. After paying your entry fee, you walk down a long set of stairs to the set of waterfalls and pools. Unfortunately, the water level was really low when we showed up, so sliding down the rock faces was right out. And we didn’t really feel like wading in the little pools with the half-dozen children who were hanging out there, so we turned around and headed back up the daunting flights of stairs.

Last stops for the day: we took a breeze by the market, where you can buy vegetables, saris, and painted jewelry. We moved on to a more professional store to buy the boys lavalavas, the traditional Samoan male wrap with built-in pockets. We cleaned up and rocked them at dinner, before heading back to the government building for the evening’s festivities.

The next morning we went back to the RLS house, but parked off to the side and walked up a trail to the site of his grave. It was a lovely hike, with a deciduous feel to the trees that reminded us of Statia.

On our third day with the rental car, we drove around the east side of the island, a big loop that started south across the center of the island and then followed the coast counter-clockwise. Our first stop was a waterfall viewpoint. We thought from the bleak stopping point that we were at a trail head, but no: it’s actually just super overgrown, and you can see a fairly tall waterfall through a gap in the trees if you position yourself just right. The recently-filleted cow carcass also detracted from the ambiance, and we moved on quickly.

Along the road south, this excellent big tree, and Jesus zapping the viewer with his finger lasers.you

Speaking of Jesus, we saw this group loading up outside a church service, and absolutely packing the maximum number of people into a series of trucks.

Other road-side notables: lots of strong support for the various Miss Samoa candidates. Also, people here are serious about decorating their streets. The tire planters and painted coconuts were notable but not super rare. Every town had some kind of flag all along the road. We found out later that these are semi-temporary: this set of flags is up to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Samoa’s independence, and they’ll stay up until they wear out and it’s time to put up the Christmas flags.

Our next stop was another waterfall, this time a short hike into a national park. The waterfall, and in fact the whole river, turned out to be dry. At this point we weren’t surprised to find that, but what was weird was that the ground was muddy and all the plants were super green and happy. There’s a drought, but it’s not holding back the vegetation. Or the cows.

Our last waterfall stop before lunch proved to be the winner.

We might have slightly overdone it on group pictures. Normal, badass, serious; you can see who participated.

For lunch we stopped at a resort, where the view was the highlight.

Our last “tour” stop for the day was the To Sua Ocean Trench, a big salt-water sinkhole linked to the ocean by inaccessible underwater tunnels. We had a great time swimming and splashing around, and once again took probably too many photos.

As we were getting ready to leave, a half-dozen Japanese tourists joined us, and one of them filmed a group jump for us.

Down another flight of stairs on the ocean side, there are some other tidal pools. The water rolls in and out with mesmerizing spirals and the occasional violent splash.

The home stretch of the drive took us around the east end of the island.

We had intended one last stop, at a swim-through pool on the north side of the island called Piula Cave. But it turned out to close at 4pm, and even if we had been in time, it’s closed all day Sunday. We had gotten bad information on both those points. By the time we were back in Apia we were hungry again, so we stopped at a Chinese restaurant. (They had a Chinese restaurant!) The food was only fine, but with enormous portions, and we were still excited to have dumplings.

We were awoken the next morning by a fish explosion slapping into the side of the boat. Andrew returned the rental car, and everyone met up at Nourish to wait for our agent to finish our checkout process, which she’d promised to start in the morning. At nine she told us she was on her way to the government office; at 11:30 she sent us a picture of her arriving in the office and beginning the wait for officials. At this point we gave up on our plan to hold court in the cafe.

By the way, the restaurant experience we’re writing about here is not the typical local cuisine. There is clearly an up-market food scene available here, but there are also a lot of cafes like this one, with a bucket of fruit salad and instant ramen noodles ready to heat and eat.

On our way back to the boats, we stopped by Apia’s cathedral, which features some gorgeous woodwork.

Our original plan had been to start sailing west that day. But by mid-morning it had become clear that that wasn’t going to happen. By afternoon, we were wondering if we would even be cleared to leave the following day. But eventually our agent came through, and delivered our exit clearances and cruising permits only a little bit after business hours. Samoa is pretty, but the administrative overhead of stopping here is pretty atrocious. Granted, our agent was not good, but we still got through faster than the people who didn’t use someone. One positive: the lady who runs the marina and dinghy dock showed up right on cue to pick up the dock keys, and was emphatically interested in hearing about our experience in order to help push the government to change. Perhaps they will; in the meantime, budget some time if you want to stop here, and prepare yourself for some serious red tape.

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