Too remote for the Olympics

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On the morning of the Olympics’ opening ceremony, we asked Seti, the head waiter at La Logoto, whether his pub might have a large, flatscreen tv on which we could watch the ceremony. We were 12 hours ahead of London, so a show beginning at 8pm in London, in theory would screen live at 8am in Samoa. Just right for breakfast. A stylish bloke, Seti stared at us, a blank stare that said, not only did he not have a flatscreen tv, but “What’s the Olympics”? At that point we realised that we were, on the north coast of Samoa’s second main island, Savaii, remote.

It’s hard to be remote these days. Everyone and everything is connected by the internet. The more resourceful amongst us will find some way of connecting pretty well anywhere. You hear on the electric wireless of mountain climbers calling in from the summit of Everest (Sagamartha, Changmalungma) with a satellite phone. So, apart from Seti’s blank stare, another test of remoteness, available in Samoa, is this: when you enter the foyer of a hotel, you immediately check your iPhone for available networks. In the foyer of Siufaga, half an hour down the road from La Logota, in the village of Faga, there were no networks, let alone available ones. We asked Lo’i, who was checking us in, whether Siufaga had the internet available. Just like Seti, Lo’i stared at us, a blank stare that said, not only do they not have the internet, but no-one else has asked us that, and why would you ask us now?

On those two tests, the north coast of Savaii, to the west of Samoa’s main island, Upolu, is remote.

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Here’s a third test, just to hand. We’re writing this on the upper, restaurant deck of Siufaga’s front office building. We sit by the railing, the sea breeze caressing our right, unshaven cheek (of our face), overlooking the North Coast Road and the lagoon. The sun is lowering in the north-western sky, sending shards of light through the swaying palm fronds and breadfruit trees. The outer reef is close to a kilometre out. (We swam out there this morning.) We’ve been here about an hour. Not only does it give us this aspect over the lagoon and the coast, but it’s also the only place in the resort with a table and chair that could be used for writing (that is, writing on a ‘puter). We’ve just had a visit from Mrs Sparkle, who was on her way back across the road to the beach for an afternoon swim (right now, she’s a tiny, dark red, speckled dot about half way to the outer reef, alone, rolling gently in the swell in an aquamarine sea.) During her visit, we pointed out to her that the bar inside has an espresso machine. “Have you had one?” she demanded, indignant on suspicion. Not yet, we told her. But we’d like to. “Hasn’t anyone come to serve you?” She threw the question at us. Service must be 24 hours! Or at least during opening hours. No, love… We left it hanging at that point. We are on the north coast of Savaii. We’ve been the only ones up here. No staff; no guests; no passers by. Until a moment ago.

We love remote. We thought we’d been remote in Fiji’s Yasawa islands. But all you need is the right phone chip – these days, the resorts up there generally have wiffy connections to the internet, anyway – and you’re just keystrokes away from home. We thought we were remote in the north of Santo, Vanuatu’s big island up north, but they have phones and the internet, too. In the last month, we’ve found parts of France and Spain that have less reliable net and phone connections than Fiji and Vanuatu. And, sure, Samoa has phone connections in most places, and wiffy net connections in a few, but unless you have a local sim card, you rely on the resorts and hotels, many of which have the net as a matter of course.

But not in Savaii.

When you run your life on the net, and your livelihood comes from it, you tend to look forward to being able to connect anywhere. So when we discovered that we were checking in for a three-night stay to a place that had no net, the initial response is panic. It’s all very well for those who don’t rely on the net to chastise us --“Oh, a few days without the net won’t hurt you!”, said Mrs Sparkle, ever sympathetic, with snooty disdain – but it could well hurt us: we could miss an important email; be forced to wait three days to hear how the Swans went.

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But this story is not about the net. We survived. You wouldn’t be reading this if we hadn’t. We use the Olympics, and the net, as metaphors to illustrate the remoteness of the north coast of Savaii. As we write, we’re planning a trip along Savaii’s south coast tomorrow, and our expectation is that that will be even more remote than here. But we’ll be back by the end of the day, and even we regard that as only a minor disruption.

No, this is not about the net. It’s about Samoa. It’s about swimming in the Pacific and it’s about swimming in places that redefine remoteness.

Remoteness is one of the most sought qualities of ocean swimming. Even off a beach in Sydney, you can be remote, in the sense that you will have no connection at all with the developed world. The only sign of civilisation is the shark net, which you cross as you go out, then again as you come back. (Mind you, many argue whether the shark net is an indicator of civilisation.) But you can come back into the beach in Sydney and you’re back in the thick of it straight away. This is at once a glory and a curse. In any case, you can see civilisation from out there if you breathe to the appropriate side.

We’ve been going to Fiji and to Vanuatu for many years for ocean swimming. Both are terrific locations offering a diversity of swimming and culchural experiences. Our winters increasingly have become filled with swimming in the South Pacific. But for years, too, we’ve been conscious that there are many other island groups in the Pacific and all of them, most probably, would be equally rewarding ocean swimming venues. One day, we kept telling ourselves, we would get to more of them.

Early in 012, we heard of plans for a series of swims in Samoa. At the same time, we had a contact from representatives of the Samoa Tourist Authority, which is looking to boost tourism. As they would. With their help, we came up here in March for what the travel industry describes as a “famil” – a familiarisation visit, which travel agents are offered in the hope that greater familiarity with a place will encourage them to promote it more to clients looking for holiday destinations. It’s one of the perqs of the travel industry. The Samoa Swim Series organiser, Seti Afoa, a Samoan then based in Auckland, came to town, too, so we spent four days checking out the proposed locations for the Samoa Swim Series events, and we visited Savaii for an overnight stay.

1st Inaugural Samoa Swim Series

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And now we’re back. The first inaugural Samoa Swim Series was over three locations on Upolu. There also was an introductory swim in Apia harbour following a “welcome parade”: all us visiting swimmers, plus locals, marched through Apia behind the Police brass band to an opening ceremony with the Prime Minister. A final, “test swim” across the channel from Upolu to Samoa’s third island, Manono, was abandoned when the weather closed in. Instead, we swam just off the beach at a resort just along the shore. If you take a day as a 24 hour period, that was five swims in four days. 15.5km. Not bad training. Prior to this exhausting week, we wondered how we’d handle it. We did, and we felt triffic at the end of it.

The idea was that visiting swimmers would do the series swims, the introductory swim and the test swim, then, if they wished, they could come over here to Savaii for some oceanswimsafari stuff. This how we come to be here now, on the upper deck of Siufaga’s restaurant building. (Siufaga sits at the end of Faga village. When something is at the end of something else, it’s “siu”. So Siufaga means “the end of Faga”. And Faga is pronounced “Funger”, with the “g” silent, so you get the “ng” dipthong, as in “fangin’ it”, but not the guttural “g”, as in “bog standard”.)

The Samoa Swim Series was a swim series with a difference. It was a concentrated, pot pourri of tropical swimming in different locations and over different courses over five days. All swims offered distance, with two of them offering shorter options, as well. All swims also offered “400m” swims, to give the locals, only recently into ocean swimming as a result of the series’ inauguration, the chance to get some “ocean” experience while they build up to the distances that many visiting swimmers regard as everyday stuff. Leading into the Samoa Swim Series, series organiser Seti also ran a series of shorter swims for locals to provide experience and to whet their whistles. Seti also has been instrumental in the inauguration of a series of scholarships by which promising young local swimmers get to train in Auckland for a while. Samoa has a good swim centre, built for the South Pacific Games a few years back, but it lacks swimmers to make the pool viable.

The series was based at the legendary Aggie Grey’s Hotel on the seafront in Apia, which is a little as we imagine the seafront in Havana, without the shady characters in Fedoras smoking cigars. Aggie’s was damaged in cyclones at the end of 2012 and is closed for most of 2013, so this year’s series will be based at another pub. In 2012, however, from Aggie’s, swimmers were bussed out each day to a different course in a different part of Upolu. This had an interesting effect in the consequent collegiate atmosphere, particularly on the way back into town after each swim. Plenty of bragging and gasbagging, which, having just done the swims, we had a right to do.

Falealili

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Swim 1 was 4km or 2km around a triangular course at Falealili, off a private residence along the coast between Apia and Faleolo International Airport (Faleolo means something like “our house”). Water temp was around 27, maybe 28 degrees Celsius. Water clarity was a little disappointing. It wasn’t dirty, but it was a bit cloudy. These things happen, of course. Depth didn’t get above a few metres, and the course was over sandy reef. It was an interesting swim, not for the visual quality of the reef, but with each of the three reaches offering different challenges and opportunities. Reach 1, about 500m into the nor’-east breeze and chop, was in your face the entire way. Nice warm-up stuff: by the time you reached the turner into Reach 2, your shoulders were well and truly pumping. It was a good lesson in the value of the streamline: the better your streamline – your “torpedo”, as we teach the kiddies – the less the resistance from a head-on chop and breeze. Keep that leading arm out there a bit longer; let the recovering arm almost meet it before pulling through; and finish off your stroke; don’t cut it short. As Coach Sandra always told us, “Swim training is about swimming faster with less effort”. A good torpedo is critical. Our friend Roger Muspratt says of his approach, “Anything over 400m is catch-up”.

Reach 2, the back stretch, parallel to the shore about half a kilometre out, ran with the breeze and the current. We flew along there, judging by the pace at which we crossed the heads of coral along the way. Having not swum for two weeks leading into these swims – and having spent a couple of days on aeroplanes, which is always good for water fitness -- we were sluggish in this race. But second time around this course, rounding that bouee for the second time into the back reach, we decided to do some work. We spotted a sub-peloton of mugs about 100 metres ahead of us, so we tried to run them down. This kind of event is good for this kind of swimming. We’ve watched Shelley Taylor-Smith swimming a relay to Rottnest. As she prepared to enter the water each time, Shelley would spot a swimmer ahead, and she’d say, “I’m going to catch him!” And she would. Then she’d spot another, even farther ahead, and she’d set out after them, and so on. It’s not a bad way of lifting your pace, to focus on something apart from how hard you’re swimming. Taking a leaf from Shelley’s book, we did this, too. About two thirds of the way along that 900m reach, we picked off the tail of that sub-peloton – they seemed to be swimming in groups of three or four – then we picked off the head of it. Then we saw another sub-peloton just ahead, so we set out after them, and we caught them on the next turner.

Reach 3 - We picked off more as we headed into the final bouee and the turn into the finish. That reach was across the breeze and the chop, but not so much across that it still didn’t feel as if it was into your face. The chase shows that it’s not hard to pick off slower swimmers if you put in a bit of effort, and putting in a bit of effort means you feel so much better afterwards.

The lesson of that swim was of how ocean swimming can be so different, so varied within the space of the one swim.

Falefa

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Swim 2 was “3.5km” – Seti Afoa admitted to more like “3.8km”, although it felt like 4.8 – around the point near the village of Falefa, which is Seti’s home village. The course ran from a resort on the northern side of the point, along the waterfront, around it, into the bay, across it, into a river, and up the river to Falefa Falls. It was a unique swim, offering a wide diversity of water types, quality, and probably four different currents in the one event. And in all that distance, the water never was deeper than two metres.

This swim began with a visit to Falefa primary school, where swim organizer Seti presented a consignment of school materials, such as whiteboards, pens, pencils, and exercise books (all swims in the series involved such presentations: the series is structured to support local schools, to encourage swimming, and provides scholarships to local swimmers to train in Auckland). This was a touching moment. It was Seti’s own primary school. “This was my school,” Seti told the assembled students, who were sitting cross-legged on the lawn under a blazing sun. All us visitors were sitting on kids chairs piled two each for strength for the grown ups on the school veranda. A parade of kids delivered us leis and coconuts, to sip the juice as the presentation proceeded. “Since I left here (Seti is 51 now), I haven’t sent foot inside the compound, until now.” We know how we would feel had we been in a similar situation. Seti told us later, that’s exactly how he’d felt. It had been a struggle for him to keep the emotions in check. “When I was here,” Seti told the kids, “no-one would ever pick me in their teams, so I used to play with the girls.” Seti wasn’t picked in schoolyard teams because Seti, born in 1961, suffered from polio. “I’m lucky to be walking on two legs now,” he said to us later. “That’s why I’ve gone in for individual sports.”

We learnt during the speeches also that one of Seti’s peers at school in Falefa grew up to be the school’s principal. She’s never left the village. She is older than Seti, although she certainly doesn’t look it.

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Reach 1 of the Falefa Falls swim was along the shore from the resort to the point. It seemed like around 1.5km, and it was into the current all the way. A gentle, head-on breeze raised no further issue. It was another opportunity to work the streamline, so critical into a head-on current. But the water was magnificently clear, if shallow. Shallowness makes the head current seem stronger of course.

Around the point, having done this swim in shortened form during our “famil” in March, we knew where to look for the finish. There are certain angles by which you can approach the Falefa river from the sea, and from which you can see the falls about half a kilometre upstream. We were in estuarine water now, with estuarine colour and taste, and now the current was across us. The swell was behind on an angle, however, and sometimes we could feel it pick us up and thrust us forwards. With the cross current, it was a bizarre sensation and it made us feel at times as if we were wallowing like dying whales.

The river mouth. Ah, the river mouth. Have you ever swum from the open sea into a river mouth? Not just any river mouth, but a river mouth only a few metres wide, brown ezz (that little phrase inserted for the Kiwis), and with silt and barely a metre deep? You can’t tell it’s only a metre deep, of course, because you can’t see the bottom. It winds around; there is no visibility; and the river bed is strewn with boulders, which appear from nowhere, usually a few centimetres from your head. It keeps you on your watch, you know. The falls were flowing, so the current was running out, but the tide was coming in.

We picked off more slow mugs as we picked our way through the boulders (one characteristic of starting way behind the peloton – because we hang back to take pitchers of the start – is that you always have someone to chase; by definition, you can always catch slower swimmers, although you will never catch swimmers of your own pace or faster).

The proud locals had rolled out bunting around the river banks, and at the top of the far bank they’d set up temporary showers, and a refreshment stall from where each swimmer was handed a palm frond tray of taro pieces in coconut milk with a fresh coconut. The electrolytes in the coconut, the mob was saying, is just the ticket to replace what you lose during an effort, although they were saying that about Gatorade, too, until last week (bear in mind, we’re talking of 2012, when an analysis of Gatorade reported the stuff offered doubtful nutritional or electrolytic value).

Mulivai

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Swim 3 was either 2kms or 4 kms at Mulivai, over Sinalei reef, the only one of the three series swims, or the week’s five swims, to be run on the south side of Upolu. This was the coast devastated by tsunami in 2009. We swam this reef when we were here on our “famil” in March. It was the most exhilarating swim we’d done in years. Why? The currents over a shallow coral reef. A characteristic of Samoan swims is the tidal current, boosted by water coming in over the outer reef from surf. This doesn’t happen in Fiji or Vanuatu, or at least it happens only occasionally, such as during the 10km swim course at Mana Island in Fiji, when the current rages around the western end of the island at certain points in the tide, making picking the swim start time important. Otherwise, swims in Fiji and Vanuatu are in waters well away from outer reefs and in relatively deeper water where the currents are not magnified as they are over shallow reef.

In Samoa, all three swims in this series took place inside outer reefs generally only a few hundred metres offshore. So you have the water flow over the reef from surf, which then has to find a way to get back out to sea, and you have tidal flow one direction or the other depending on whether the tide is rising or falling. The flow can be so strong that there are fierce rips surging through the occasional gaps in the outer reef. Some of them are frightening. While the water over the relatively calm inner reefs – the broad expanses of gentle, shallow reef where punters like to snorkel, swim and otherwise mooch around – looks benign, there often are strong currents, which you appreciate only when you’re in them.

Over the Sinalei reef in March, we caught both these currents pushing us from one end of the beach towards the finish at Sinalei, an elegant resort that was, like many resorts and communities along the south coast, rebuilt after the tsunami. There are three resorts side by side along this beach. As we neared Sinalei, and the gap in the reef that also makes this beach a surf spot, the current accelerated, sucking us so quickly over shallow coral that it was like riding a motor bike through the bush in the dark – you flew over the reef, coral heads and antlers appearing suddenly in front of your face so that you’re constantly propping, changing direction, flattening yourself over the water’s surface as you avoid being scratched or impaled. You also have to get yourself close enough to the Sinalei wharf that the rip through the gap in the reef doesn’t grab you before you get to the ladder at the end of the wharf. Exciting, is a word that comes to mind.

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There was more water over the reef on swim day in July, however, and the current was much less aggressive. The water was gloriously clear, but there was a strong breeze blowing from the sou’-east, which meant the first of three reaches in this swim was virtually head on into the chop and the breeze, the second reach was across it, and along the third reach you had the wind and chop across your tail, giving you a bit of a push, but not enough to get a meaningful benefit. The 4km swimmers had to go around the apex of the triangular course twice, so you had to deal with these three reaches twice, albeit only once with the chop and breeze behind you.

It was a pretty swim, but not an easy swim. Even with the push from behind, the chop unsettled the surface and you couldn’t actually run with it. But it was fun in noice water, which was clear and about 28 degrees C.

Test swim – Manono Island -- At the end of the three series swims, and following the initial non-compulsory “1.5km” swim in Apia harbour that was more like 2km – not that there’s anything wrong with that – we’d done 14km in three days (counting a day as a 24-hour period). We had one swim to go, a test swim across a channel at the western end of Upolu between the main island and Samoa’s third largest island, Manono, which sits on the southern edge of the channel separating Upolu from Savaii. This was supposed to be 3.5km, but was called off when we arrived at swim start to find grey sheets of light rain sweeping through the channel, cutting visibility in parts to almost zero. Instead, awginizah Seti took us along the coast to Aggie’s Resort, the second and newer establishment in the legendary Samoa hotel chain, for a 3km swim along the reef there. Aggies Resort lies near the ferry wharf, from where the MV Samoa Queen and the MV Lady Samoa 111 ply the strait. There was dredging going on near the wharf, and the tide took its milky water along the shore past Aggie’s Resort. It wasn’t a pleasant swim. Hours later, when we boarded the ferry for Savaii, the water from the wharf towards Aggies was absolutely clear: the tide had changed. Too late for us today, but. Manono, too, awaits another year.

Savaii

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The ferry took us to Savaii, 21km across the strait. We stayed at two places along Savaii’s north coast and we circumnavigated the island in a rental car, to get a better idea of what else Savaii might offer ocean swimmers. We found a few things, including locals on Savaii’s southern coast who, for 10 tala (about $A4.40), will shoot a bag full of coconuts, one by one, out of an ocean blowhole: they stand above the blow hole waiting on the surge from a wave then, just at the right moment, they drop the coconut onto the surge, which, provided their timing is just so, spits it out the blowhole maybe 20 metres into the air. We also found the clearest tropical water in which we’ve ever swum, and a couple of “secret spots”. For now, we’ll let your pitchers tell the story of Savaii. It’s the kind of place about which a pitcher can be far more eloquent than some bald, fat, ageing git banging into a keyboard.

Manu Samoa

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Samoa appears to be a quiet, modest community set amongst swaying palm trees and spirited sea breezes, well-ordered around its villages and churches, and its stable government which is, we were told by an international aid official with responsibility in the region, held up as a model of governance in the South Pacific. Since independence 50 years ago, there’s hardly been a change of government. There are wall-to-wall churches. So many churches that, were world rankings based on churches per head of population, Samoa would sit at its top.

There is a story in Samoan legend, spelt out in a storyboard on the Apia waterfront, about an ancient goddess who predicted that the old Samoan religion would be supplanted one day by a “new” religion. New to Samoa, anyway. Perhaps this conditioned the Samoans for the arrival of Christian missionaries. After an abortive attempt by missionaries to establish in Samoa in 1828 – they were given short shrift by the locals on Manono – a Congregationalist, John Williams, arrived on the north-eastern shores of Savaii in 1830. The spot is marked now with an obelisk on the waterfront, in front of one of the hundreds of cathedrallic churches that dominate the communities dotting the coastline. Williams’s timing in 1830 was much better than that of the failures from Tonga two years prior. Over that time, Samoa’s four chiefly titles had been united as one. Williams also landed where he knew that one chiefly title to be based, so he could demand immediately to be taken to Samoa’s leader. (Williams later tried to make a similar foray into Vanuatu, somewhat less successfully when he was eaten by the locals on Eromanga.)

The Christian stream is powerful in Samoa. As we say, every village is dominated by churches, often by several churches. According to the World Fact Book, assembled and distributed by the US Central Intelligence Agency, 98 per cent of Samoans are Christian, 59.9 per cent of them Protestant (Congregationalist 34.8pc, Methodist 15pc, and many denominations more), Roman Catholics are 19.6pc, and the Mormons are 12.7pc. There also are Baha’i and Muslims amongst the 193,000 population. And all of those denominations have their churches. Most villages seem to have multiple churches, most of them competing with each other to be the biggest and grandest. In many villages, even your rank and file parish church is built, using community resources, like a cathedral. Along one five kilometre stretch of Upolu’s south coast, we counted three Mormon churches, all of them, as Mormons do, using the same design as pretty well everywhere else in the world.

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We’d like to know whether the Samoan tradition of ordered, peaceful communities pre-dated the Christians or came with them. Samoa is proud of “the Samoan way”, which embodies this order. It certainly makes for a gentle place, a place that’s seen hardly a change in government since independence from New Zealand in 1962. Samoa is serene. So serene that, even the slightest flicker of discord stands out. One Sunday morning, we saw a couple walking to church. They were in their 30s, and they were late. The service had started, and they were hurrying. They were dressed in their Sunday finest: all gleaming clean and brilliant white. He was ahead of her, she a half dozen paces behind. They’d been arguing, we figured. It was something about his manner, his body language, his brusque walk, that suggested trooble at mill. He was ahead of her and he wasn’t waiting. He arrived at the church and went in. She arrived moments later, but he hadn’t held the door open; it was closed. She went in.

Such an inconsequential incident, but it stood out in the serenity and order of Samoan village life. You could sleep all day on the verandah of a Samoan fale, so quiet, tranquil and balmy is the life. Some do: the front yards are dotted with the tombs of passed forebears. They take care of their own.

It is a beautiful, peaceful place. There is a tourist industry, but it’s nascent. Aggie Grey’s has been in Apia for generations and now has a satellite resort near Faleolo airport. There are other pubs in Apia, of course, some of them grand, and there are small resorts scattered around the coastline. Many locals run “beach fale” resorts, basically just shelters on the beach at a backpacker resort standard. We’ve long thought of the Vanuatu tourist industry as being like Fiji 40 years ago. Samoa is like Vanuatu 40 years ago. Plenty of room for growth.

That’s not to say that Samoa is without sophistication. Aggie Grey’s is a stylish post-colonial establishment. Our pub on Savaii, Le Lagoto, also was a stylish, boutique hotel with expansive decks over the bay, elegant rooms and very good food. There are elegant diners and restaurants, too. The discovery of our visit was Bistro Tatau (tattoo), run by two Australians, Bill and… er, sorry, we can’t recall his partner’s name (we didn’t meet him)… and with a menu and standard that you’d welcome in large cities. They’ve had the same staff since they opened over ten years earlier. Says something for the place.

All that said, ocean swimming in Samoa is different, in our experience, from that in other Pacific island states. Much of it is closer in to shore in shallower water and with variable and stronger currents. There are some channel crossings, such as Upolu to Manono, but these are infrequent. The reef hugs the shoreline in Samoa, sometimes a kilometre or two out, in other places hugging the beach. It’s not easy to get deeper water, because there’s not a lot of deeper water inside the reef.

Before we went to Samoa, we had a mental image of the place based on watching Super 15 Rugby and encounters between the All Blecks and the Wobblies: fierce, physical, take-no-prisoners encounters amongst warriors proud of the tradition they were asserting. After all, Samoa is Manu Samoa – “Warrior Samoa”. There is this, but from our eyrie in Aggie Grey’s in Apia, it’s within a context of respectful social order based on villages led by wise, experienced people. The worst thing a Samoan can do, it seems, is to bring shame on the village by misbehaving. Few do. Serenity reins. The worst you could say about Samoa is that it would be nice if they got a better handle on the dog problem.

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