Asau is a village on the island of Savai'i, the lesser populated of the two large islands that make up Samoa. It is located on the Northwestern coast, a perfect stop for us before we round the point and head South for Tonga. If it sounds like Hawai'i, that is no accident. It is believed that Polynesians left Savai'i to travel to other islands and landed in the Hawaiian islands and further East to French Polynesia. There are a few islands scattered about to the East of Samoa with similar names - all supposedly pointing back to Savai'i.
As we mentioned in an earlier blog, we caravanned with a couple other boats, Roger Henry and Mahina Tiare III. Glad we did, entering the pass through the reef was harrowing, but as we were sandwiched between two sailing all-stars so we were in the best possible position to be successful. Now we just have to get ourselves back out of this place when we want to leave.
It was time to leave Apia (that City bustles quite a bit for its size), but we weren't quite ready to leave Samoa so spending a second week in Asau, Savai'i turned out to be the perfect compliment to our first week on Upolu.
It is sleepy here in Asau, We are anchored out from the Va-i-Moana Resort, a small collection of fales on a sandy beach. Sale, the resort-owner is a New Zealand citizen but hails from this village. His family owned the land that he turned in to a lovely resort with just the right amount of rustic and comfort. Saturday night was local food night - what we got was a beautiful selection of seafood (tuna, prawns, octopus, mussles) with rice, taro, bananas cooked in coconut milk, asian noodle salad and mango ice cream for desert. Sale and his friends were playing island music and invited the kids to try their hands at the bass, constructed of an upside down plastic bucket with a thick cord through a hole in the middle attached to a stick. They wedged the stick against the bucket top to put tension on the cord and voila, a bass.
As we found at Aggie Grey's, hospitality is a hallmark of Samoa. Sale invited us to come ashore and play on the beach anytime, we can take showers ashore and he's arranged a tour of some lava tubes for us tomorrow. In return we eat meals at his place and enjoy a cold Vailima or two. This morning as Finn and I were having school on the foredeck in the shade of the boom, a policeman paddled up in his outrigger canoe. He was checking in on behalf of customs and immigration. When we left Apia, we said we were sailing to Asau; customs was following up on that plan. He was kind and low-key and we figure he drove the coolest police car in history. This is our most relaxing week of our trip so far.
On Saturday, shortly after our arrival in Asau, we met Alvah, Diana and the Mahina crew ashore so we could jump in a mini-van for a tour of the island. We were driven around the whole island, more of a drive than we anticipated, but quite interesting.
In Samoa, there appear to be a few careers: construction, civil service, tourism, and retail. If you don't run a resort or work for one, you can push papers for the government or help build yet another church for a village, or sell water and fruit at your family's roadside stand. Unless .your land contains some curiosity that you can charge tourists to see!
On our trip around the island we stopped at a few of these curious places. Some were worth the cover charge. On the southern coast, the Alofaaga Blowholes would blow your mind. As breakers hit the shore, the water flows underneath the lava and shoots up through holes - just like geysers at Yosemite. Water and mist shoot straight up into the air and hang suspended for a while. A crazy old man drops coconuts into the holes so they rocket skyward with the right wave. However, perhaps more interesting than the holes themselves, is the political intrigue surrounding the ownership of the holes. Apparently, a family used to own the land with the holes and they charged a visitor's fee. This is common practice; we had already paid a few Tala each to view Lover's Leap, the Methodist Church with lava flowing through it, a rainforest banyan tree and suspension bridge, etc. To get to the blowholes, we had to drive through the village. Recently, the village grew tired of the traffic and wasn't getting a cut of the revenue. The village took the family to court and won the right of ownership. It probably helped that one of the village high-chiefs also served as a judge. Now the village owns the first 200 feet of blowholes and the family was left the final bit. The catch is, once we paid the village we saw what we came to see. There was no need to continue down the dead end road to pass the family fence and pay them another 10 Tala to view the same holes. A few family members stood and grumbled while we stopped short of their fence to view the spectacular water show. They weren't angry at us but at their village counterparts who had collected our fees. It sounds to us like the family got a bit of a raw deal, but they weren't giving the village a cut to begin with. Sounds like a mediation might have resulted in a more equitable solution, but it looks too late for that now. The only difference between that kind of dispute in Samoa and in the US is that in Samoa, you can't pack up and move elsewhere that easily. Family and village life are nearly inextricable.
The virgin's grave was kind of a funny little anomaly in the flow. As lava flowed through a Methodist church between 1905-1911, it came to a grave of a missionary and flowed around it instead of over it. The family created a miracle out of it and now charges a few Tala to walk tourists through their property, along the old lava flow through the church and up to the grave. The best part of the tour was the sign out front (see photo) that read as if Virgins Crave Methodists. I had to giggle about that one for quite a while.
We plotted a 66 nm trip to Asau, Savai'i. As this would take about 12 hours with typical boat speed, and there is about 12 hours of good daylight in our tropical days, we could leave at first light and race to get into a tricky harbor before the sun began to set, or we could leave in the late afternoon, sail slowly, and arrive once the sun was up: we choose the latter. Alvah Simon of Roger Henry had the same plan. John Neal and his crew on Mahina Tiarre were in another anchorage on Savai'i, but planned to arrive in Asau at the same time because Sale, the proprietor of a local resort had offered to meet us and guide us in the channel.
The entrance to Asau is tricky. There is rusting fishing boat on the reef to the west, and just two months ago a sailboat from Seattle was lost entering this harbor. Its 22.5 meter mast rests along a boardwalk at the resort. The report is that they did not use enough power entering, and the west setting current pushed them onto the reef. The narrow channel dredged many years ago cuts from northwest to southeast through the breakers, but despite what is indicated on the charts it is not well marked nor easy to see from outside the reef. Reports of typhoons changing the rock configurations in the channel made the range suspect. The chart also indicated tidal rips in the channel. We backed up our navigational aids with Google Earth photos from 2010, which showed the channel depth clearly. While the image is helpful, the coordinates were not reliable.
We reached the channel entrance after a bumpy night sail. The weather was unsettled, with winds around 25 knots. Sale waited for us in the channel in his aluminum skiff. Our three boats along with a catamaran we saw in Apia, Two Oceans, lined up to enter following the guide. Mahina Tiare first, our Jenny P next, Roger Henry, then Two Oceans. Mahina Tiarre started in slowly, then gunned their engines through the pass. They appeared to pass without a hitch, so we followed. I had Christine standing on the "sissy rails" by the mast looking for the reef and Sophie calling out the depth so that I could keep my eyes on my guide. All started well with Sophie calling out 25+ foot depths. I kept the throttle high to counter the swirling water. Suddenly, Sophie called a depth of 1.9. My heart raced and I braced for a bump. The depth sounder measures the depth under the boat: we need 6 feet in total, 3 feet under the hull for the keel. Sophie then called out 2.0, but I didn't feel a bump. A wave picked us up, I pushed the throttle fully forward and hoped to be set back in the channel and not on the reef. No bump came, and Sophie called out 28 feet. A few seconds more and we were through the dangerous part of the channel. I wondered if I had crossed a sandbar and just didn't feel it, I could only think that the swirling water had somehow kept me off the bottom. I radioed to Alvah and warned him that I had gotten shallow: he responded that he would stay east of my track. Alvah passed through without incident. John told me that he had suddenly seen only 2 feet under his keel, so we both considered ourselves lucky. We were all concerned about how our luck would hold exiting the channel though.
The next day John, Amanda and Alvah took a dinghy, GPS, and depth sounder into the channel and snorkeled it. After three passed they could not find anything shallower than 25 feet while staying on the range, so we have a safe strategy for getting back out of here. John is going back today to take some GPS coordinates of the range for Sale, which should increase the safety for future visitors.
So what did we see coming in? While it seems strange that two of us would have an anomaly with our depth sounders, there are a couple of possible explanations. Thermalclines, or sudden changes in water temperature are common and can throw off depth sounders. (Submarines look for strong thermalclines to hide in.) The locals also warned us of a 5 meter tiger shark that sometime hangs out in the channel current. That, or a school of fish could have thrown off our tranducer. At 1.9 or 2.0 feet, we should have grounded, so I think we were in the channel, but had a sounding error. On our electronic chart, we sailed over the western reef. This was not particularly concerning, because charts here in the pacific are not as accurate as in the States, and quarter mile error in charts is not uncommon. Experiences like this remind us why we do not enter at night.
We will relax here in this beautiful bay for a few days, and leave early some morning, when the winds should be light and the visibility good.
07/29/2010, Aggie Grey's Poolside
I am writing this from the pool side at Aggie Grey's. Even after several visits here I still find it amusing that the women exclusively serve drinks, and the men exclusively serve the food. In the dining room I get two bills, but at least I don't have to tip. As our drinks arrived today I asked the waitress for some french fries, and she replied that she would send a waiter. It seems that the waitress can't even pass along a simple order. (When the waiter took my order for fries, I couldn't resist trying to order another drink. He told me he would send over the waitress.) Maybe Sabrina could take both orders?
It is Thursday afternoon, and we plan to leave for Savai'i tomorrow evening. This is likely my last bit of relaxing for the next few days. Tomorrow will be busy with final preparations. I spent this morning clearing out and refueling. We are surprisingly busy and everything takes more time here.
I brought Sophie with me today to clear out, which required stops at Customs, Immigration, Customs again, and the Port Authority. (Previously I had to go to the office of the Prime Minister to request permission to sail to Savai'i.) It was eye opening for Sophie that our travel required permission and had restrictions. The officials were very competent and friendly, but it was a time consuming process.
In the States to refuel the boat, we would motor up to a fuel dock and pump away. The fuel dock in Apia has around a 200 gallon minimum, which doesn't work well for my 90 gallon tank. Instead, I am taking two 5.3 gallon (20 liter) jerry cans in a taxi to a gas station, a $6 round trip. It took me 5 trips. Interesting though. The stations are full service, and the Samoa attendant was very careful to read the exact capacity of my cans. I received exactly 20.00 liters in each can, despite asking them to fill 'em up on the first couple runs. The other interesting part was that the bill was 97.2 Tala each time, and each time I paid with a 100 Tala note I had to ask for may change or chase the attendant down for it. Five times? Maybe some other yacthies are careless with their change.
It has been a significant adjustment for us to be without cell phones. (There is cell service here, we just will not buy phones or service in each country.) Coordinating the re-supply and store runs is more challenging without being able to quickly communicate and coordinate, as some of our supplying involves searching through several stores.
Even just re-stowing everything on board takes several hours. It is a small boat, and many things sit in front of, or underneath other items we need.
We are very much enjoying the trip and the cultural experience, although there are times I would like to hit the easy button, have a cell phone, the Internet, a car, and super stores.
P.S. I have gotten some inquiries about the transformer I started on fire. I did find a new one. The only ones on island are rated to 220 volts, but it seems to be working fine. I no longer think that setting the voltage 10% low was the problem. My batteries were pretty drained when I hooked up the old one, I think my battery charger just over taxed it and it somehow got too hot here in the tropics. Now I run it 10 minutes on, ten minutes off, until the charging current drops below 60% of the transformer maximum. I searched the island for a shore power plug, being referred store to store with certainty that the next place definately has them only to hear they had never seen anything like, but they did know exactly where I could buy one. I had heard that in the Polynesian culture they hate to tell someone no or fail to answer a question. I believe I witnessed this first hand. After seeing the marina staff just stick wires into the outlet for a neighbor, I made my own connector with heavy wire and solder. I can only image the call I would have gotten in Elliot Bay pulling that trick. No more fires though.
07/28/2010, Aggie Grey's, Samoa
Every Wed night at Aggie Grey's, people start filing in at 5:30pm to get a good seat for the 7:45pm dance show. A buffet dinner of local foods is served up immediately following. We were there promptly and were rewarded with front row seats. There was guitar playing, much hand and chest slapping, play fighting, drumming and chanting. The ladies came out to give a subtler performance. At least one if not two of the young ladies were actually men. I am sure of Sabrina, because she became part of the tongue-and-cheek volunteer from the audience portion of the show, but I think there was another as well. Can you spot her in the pictures? As her day-job, she serves up pancakes at the breakfast hour.
Actually, the Sabrina bit conveyed more of the local culture than you might realize. In some families, it is important for the last child to be a female. The girls stick around longer to help the elderly parents. If the last child is a boy, a decision is made to raise the child as a female. These men are referred to as Fa'afafine. In other cases, these men have just chosen to live as women. Their affectation makes it very clear and they are often gently teased by their contemporaries. This was the case with our tour guides as well; Jonah dressed in traditional menswear, but was clearly a feminine spirit. Fooa gave him a ribbing about it, making it clear to the tour group, but in a kind way that Jonah was comfortable with.
One thing I love about island culture is that the islands are usually so small; citizens tend to have more than one calling. For instance, Wally, our security guard at the marina... turns out he is also the fire dancer at Aggie Grey's. We saw him at work as we left for the show, then we saw him back at his post upon our return. In between, he ran over to the hotel, put on his costume, flamed for 15 minutes or so, then scooted back to work at the dock. Island culture is sometimes frustratingly rigid and then also incredibly flexible.
07/27/2010, Manolo Island, Samoa
On Tuesday we made a day-long visit to Manono Island, a very small island in the Apolima Straight (the pathway between the two largest islands of Upolu and Savaii) with around 800 inhabitants. We signed up for the tour through Aggie Grey's and though I knew it would be quite staged, I wanted the kids to get a chance to see some local culture, not just the busy town of Apia with too many taxis, hot pavement, mangy dogs and feral cats.
The day did not disappoint. Our tour guides, Fooa and Jonah, were an inadvertent comedy team. They picked us up in a small bus, drove us 45 minutes along the coast to an area called Manono-Uta, which was essentially a compound of a couple houses and a half dozen boats. The family who lived there was apparently the transport company from Upolu to Manono. The aluminum runabouts you see in the pictures serve as school buses to take the Manono kids back and forth for the school day. Our boat was less sturdy looking, made of wood and quite leaky. I knew we'd make it to the other side, but I wondered how far up my legs the water would reach before we landed.
Five other people signed up for the tour besides our family, so we had a nice small group. We landed on Manono near a very large church, only one of many on this small island. You'll notice a very small islet in one of our pictures. Eric joked with the tour guide about how he knew that island didn't have people living on it - no church. Despite our best planning efforts, one of the kids had to go to the bathroom right away. We were motioned to a family home with an outhouse. I was reminded of my days in Micronesia where toilets were installed, but did not necessarily function. Freya and Finn gave it their best go - we found some wallpaper squares on a ledge ( I think they were used as toilet paper) to line the seat with. When we were done, we tried to flush but the handle was just for decoration.
Back on the tour, we walked through a couple villages, noticing that people lived in both cinderblock with tin roof homes as well as traditional thatch roofed structures. As on the more modern Upolu, each extended family has a compound, a nice chunk of land they own. There is a meeting house where the head of the family and the other ranking members have regular meetings, each person is given their specific spot on the floor upon which to sit. There are then the sleeping structures, sometimes like a house with walls, sometimes open to breeze. Most people sleep on pandanus-woven sleeping mats, not mattresses, so the beds are rolled up during the day and spread out again at night. The other curious aspect of the family compound is the graveyard that most seem to have. Family members are buried on site. The larger the grave stone, the more prominent the member. Once a family chooses to bury someone on their land, they cannot sell it (most do not sell land anyway); however, if they find they want or need to sell, they can remove the body and move it to the new location if it has already been 10 years in the ground. You can see some of the more modern meeting houses in our street views back on Upolu. They are quite close together; the lots seem to run deep.
After 30 minutes or so of walking, having passed by a couple more churches and meetings houses, and the school yard where the kids were having recess, we came to a meeting house of a family who hosted us for a kava ceremony. Kava is a root found throughout the Pacific Islands, it is ground up, mixed with water and drunk. If you have too much, or the kava is strong, you will become numb inside your mouth and throughout the body. We had just a sip, from a common cup. In Pohnpei, Micronesia the kava is traditionally chewed by someone, then spit into the bowl and mixed with water. I don't believe they do it that way in Samoa, but I didn't ask the question because I could not refuse the sip. The kids were left out of the ceremony for obvious reasons, but they were quite interested in the motions.
We were also given a coconut cream making demonstration, some local basket weaving, and of course given the chance to buy something the family had made. Finn and Sophie each picked out a fan and Freya selected a nicely sized cowrie shell that reminded her of "the planet Mars."
After the family visit, we were shuttled off to a nice open hut by the shore were we had a little picnic lunch, were given a chance to swim/snorkel (the coral was mostly dead), and then we hopped back into the boat after the boat-helper had bailed out at least 25 buckets-full of water ( I stopped counting around then.)
Our kids were thoroughly fascinated by the outing. The bus ride was educational, notice the strange yellow sign we took a picture of; one in English and then Samoan posted about every few miles along the highway: "No Rape or Indecent Acts." They said hello to some school kids their age and they got a real look at how some people live, out in the open. We were so pleased with how well they sat through the kava ceremony, tried their heads on the traditional pillow, and accepted crowns of flowers by saying "Faafetei" which means "thank you" in Samoan.