By Sandy Savos
I lost my heart to a magnificent, mesmerising country called Samoa within minutes of landing at Faleolo International Airport, Apia, Upolu Island, amid a sea of smiling faces and a band playing soft traditional music. Families and friends welcoming loved ones made me slightly emotional. True happiness was in the air. It was a great start to an eight-day epic adventure.
I was one of four travel writers from Australia who had been invited by the Samoan Tourism Authority’s PR agent Peter to witness the colourful and hugely popular Teuila Festival and see some of the country’s spectacular natural attractions. My colleagues were Craig (Fairfax Media), Nikola (Get Lost magazine) and Claire (Expedia website); all seasoned travel writers and among the beautiful people of this world. Peter joined us for our insights and our absolute craziness.
Virgin Australia flew the Aussie media team from Sydney to Apia … in five hours AND one minute (according to the captain). I was surprised, pleasantly, by the generous leg room in economy. It was ”smooth sailing” as a (tiny) bottle of Chivas Regal whisky helped me snore softly, dreaming of faraway lands and unknown adventures.
The Teuila Festival (named after Samoa’s national flower) surprised me. I did not know what to expect. Sure, I was interested (!!) in the 2013 Miss Samoa Beauty Pageant, which would end the week-long festival, but I was ignorant (shamelessly) of other cultural activities. Ooh, boy!! What a marvellous, tantalising, breathtaking kaleidoscope of the Polynesian way of life … traditional, cultural, spiritual and the strongest focus on family, friendship and community. Spellbinding. Riveting. Colourful. Memorable. A visual feast for the eyes that never became tired.
The opening ceremony outside Government Plaza, Apia, set the scene for what was to follow: dozens of performers, in traditional costumes and from every part of the country, danced and sang in the hot, humid weather which did not faze them in the least. The South Pacific at its most spectacular. Nothing like this on Earth. The evening highlights (over several nights) enhanced our Polynesian experience – choir singing, siva afi (fire knife dancing) and the Chiefs Fiafia island cultural spectacular, with Chief Tauasa Sielu Avea and his entertainers performing traditional dancing and singing from Tahiti, Tonga, New Zealand, Hawaii, Fiji and Samoa.
The cultural village near Government Plaza had the ta mea taulima (wood carving) and flower arrangement competitions, and the tattoo and umu (traditional cooking) demonstrations. Samoan tattooing (tatau) unnerved me; not, the splendid, intricate designs – which denote status – on various parts of the body (male and female), but the steps taken. Painful steps – one prick of ink at a time – with a ”needle” and mallet until the job is completed which could take days (with rest periods). Jab one, jab two, jab three. Jab, jab, jab.
I saw a woman (surrounded by men) having a tattoo on one thigh; it would have been painful but she showed no signs of anguish. She seemed more interested on what was being played on her iPhone. Traditional Samoa meets modern Samoa; the blending of the past and present. Tatau is an ancient art; some experts say more than 2000 years old. A man’s tattoos can go from the middle of his back, down the sides and to his knees; a women’s tattoos are less extensive. An imprint of tradition for life.
A more enjoyable scenario for me was watching the umu preparations to feed the hungry visitors including dozens of schoolchildren who had come to the cultural village to learn, and respect, the Samoan traditions. The above-ground umu is an earth oven (hangi in New Zealand [Maori], imu in Hawaii, lovo in Fiji) which begins with a fire (done the ancient way of rubbing two sticks together) to heat the rocks, which when hot enough, are placed around banana-leaf parcels of food. Then the oven is covered with leaves and the cooked food should be ready to eat within several hours.
The 2013 Miss Samoa Beauty Pageant at the EFKS Youth Hall, Apia, was a dazzling evening before a packed house of enthusiastic supporters for the eight contestants including Miss Australia, Muliagatele Renera Thompson, 25, who became the first runner-up for 2013. We met Muliagatele at the airport for our flight home to Sydney. She is a beautiful woman with a most charming personality; the perfect ambassador for Samoa. Australia is blessed to have her.
Pride of place went to an auditor, Susana Reti Fanueli (sponsored by Apia Insurance Company), who was crowned by Janine Tuivaiti, Miss Samoa last year and the reigning Miss South Pacific. Susana, 23, had been a Samoa College student and had studied at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The beauty pageant was a fitting end to a most glorious festival. The women, contestants and supporters, were ”dressed to the nines” and the social event of the year resembled a Cinderella ball, island style.
The writer was a guest of Samoan Tourism Authority
Please note: This is the FIRST of four articles on Samoa focusing on; 1) culture, 2) hospitality, 3) cuisine and 4) attractions.