Setting their own pace

They celebrate their independence every year, but for thousands of Samoans those celebrations have really just been a warm up. In June the Pacific nation put years of practice to good use and hosted a five day party to celebrate 50 years of autonomy from New Zealand.

New Zealand wrested control of Samoa from the Germans after World War I and ruled Samoa through the League of Nations. Increasing resistance against colonial rule eventually saw Samoa become the first Pacific island nation to gain independence in 1962.

In the week leading to the big day, traffic jammed roads in the capital, Apia, markets throbbed with lights and music and the local Vailima beer flowed unchecked.

Even smelly taxi drivers were put on notice. Make sure you clean up because the world will be visiting, said head of state Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi.

Apia is an interesting city where First World luxuries exist alongside Third World hardships. Mobile provider Digicel's shops that are modern and slick, with the latest cellphones on display, a constant stream of people are ordering at the McDonalds counter, high end four wheel drive vehicles cruise the streets and a newly built line of bars and restaurants along the marina offers ice cold cocktails and sumptuous meals.

But the United Nations still grades Samoa a 'least developed country'. Unemployment runs at 80% and around 30% of the country’s GDP is made up of remittances sent back from Samoans working overseas. Natural disasters regularly decimate the region. All of this could leave everyone quite miserable, but Samoans are generally philosophical, hospitable and friendly.

“Life is certainly different here,” says Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna'i, former editor of Ngai Tahu’s Te Karaka magazine who recently returned home to Samoa after living in Christchurch for over a decade. “You get used to it though. Everything still gets done, but life has its own pace.”

The pace leading to Independence Day on 1 June was unusually chaotic as thousands of people swept into town, eager to take part in the parade. The day was a blast of colour with every post and pole decorated with sheaves of woven pandanus leaves and flowers. Brightly patterned puletsi, the matching skirt and tunic worn by Samoan ladies — and the men’s multi-coloured lava lavas — were everywhere. The only breeze came from the constant waving of woven palm-frond fans, but that was only thanks to some Cook Islands talent.

“Samoans have forgotten the art of making fans,” says Tafuna’i, “so we invited some ladies from the Cook Islands over and they literally made thousands of fans for the day.”

A brief morning shower and an afternoon thunderstorm brought refreshing breaks to the blistering 30 degree day, but didn’t deter the marching, dancing and theatrical displays that went on until well after dark.

A more sedate pace kicked in on Saturday, however, with the start of a five day public holiday. Most shops were shut or only open until noon. Families headed back to their villages and the streets were eerily quiet after the previous day’s mania.

Our group decided to embrace the Samoan way. Schedules and clock watching were put aside and we headed to the small village of Faofao on the southeastern coast of Upolu for a lunch feast and swim.

We stopped first at the Fugalei fresh produce market to pick up some coconuts for the drive. Ice cold and with the top knocked off them and a straw through the hole, the juice, known as niu, was the perfect thirst quencher as the temperatures started their steady climb into the high twenties.

The muggy, hour-long drive took us from Apia Harbour along the northern coastal road before turning right onto the Le Mafa Pass inland road. We went with tour group Polynesian Xplorer, which hired a local bus for us for the day. That meant hard, narrow wooden seats and open-air windows, but an authentic taste of Samoa.

Our driver, Jackie, ominously had a plastic skeleton hanging above him and turned up the volume on a dub step soundtrack so high it drowned out any weird noises the bus made as it ground its way up the hills. The drive took us through the mountains of Upolu with incredible views of the Falefa Valley towards the northern coast. There were jagged peaks dropping vertiginously towards a sweeping valley and everything was covered in a patchwork blanket of fertile, lush vegetation in every shade of green imaginable.