Aniva’s Place – a home away from home in Samoa

“One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.

Edith Wharton

My trip to Samoa, an embodiment of this quote, providing many happy memories and a desire to return to stay at Aniva’s Place where I felt genuinely welcomed and valued.

However, before I wax lyrical about Aniva and her hotel, like Mary Poppins, I’ll “start at the very beginning…” a very good place to launch a travel post!

Due to a ‘complimentary’ wind we arrived in Apia almost an hour earlier than scheduled, touching down at 4.20am. The warm air noticed straight away plus sweet, ‘honeysuckle’ scent of colourful Bougainvillea arborea and the beautiful, fragrant Plumeria (common name Frangipani),  as well as the usual airport fuel smells. I felt relaxed and at ease – and fully awake. There was something special about the place.

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

I took the time to notice and smell the flowers in Samoa – everywhere I went I soaked up the joy of the mass of colour from the tropical plants and the rain forest lushness of the vegetation.

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(Two nights after my arrival when having dinner with Hilary and Peter Ray, close friends of one of my students, they regaled me with stories of their connection with Samoa. Peter explained why they chose to build in “Paradise”. After being away from the place for a couple of years, he returned for a holiday. When he stepped off the plane and inhaled the warm, fragrant night air he knew, he was home. )

No bridge into the terminal at Faleolo International Airport, so we descended the stairs and walked the few yards to the entrance, but struck a bottleneck.

I remembered the discussion between two women on the bus taking us to the transit lounge in Sydney. They joked that going through customs and immigration at Apia would be the quickest we’d ever experience. Had they jinxed us?

I wasn’t the only one to wonder aloud what the problem was until I realised they were doing the health card checks before allowing us inside the terminal.

We’d completed the card aboard the plane – well some had – hence the delay as officers checked cards not filled out correctly, double-checking no one had a fever. The cards focused on Ebola and the countries with Ebola victims. In a country where Dengue Fever from mosquitoes is a reality, detecting and preventing the introduction of sickness indeed a priority because ‘a fever’ could be misdiagnosed later and have devastating consequences on this small island.

At least, passport control was quick, collecting my suitcase even quicker as my purple case appeared on the carousel just as I walked over. Customs took a minute at most with all luggage put through an X-ray machine. I’d first seen one of these when in NZ, 2013 – efficiency plus.

Outside the Customs and Immigration Area, I couldn’t believe the busyness of the small airport. It could be midday at Southland Shopping Centre!

A crowd of taxi drivers touted for business, people waited for relatives or friends (what dedication getting up so early), and passengers waited for flights out and all the usual workers provided expected services. I looked around for Diana, the lady I’d met at Sydney airport who had said her daughter would drop me at my hotel.

Apia Airport
Faleolo International Airport 4.30am

I must have looked confused because several taxi drivers offered to take me to town. One tall man in a bright pink Polynesian shirt was quite insistent. He followed me around as if I was lying about having a friend, or perhaps hoping to wear me down while I searched for Diana.

A visit to the tourist desk to get a map in case I did have to find my way, and the over-friendly cabbie looked over my shoulder as if he was coming with me. What a relief to hear Diana call out. She’d had a phone call from her daughter who was parking the car. The cabbie hovered within earshot.

He disappeared as Christiana arrived and didn’t hear her dismay at the size of her mother’s suitcase plus several bags. ‘All the stuff you demanded I bring my love,’ Diana said with a smile. Christiana’s worried looked increased when she saw my medium purple clothes-eater. ‘I’ve only a tiny car, Mum!’

I felt obligated to ease Christiana’s discomfort and release Diana from the hasty promise.  ‘No worries! If it doesn’t fit,’ I swept my hand to encompass the line of cabs, ‘I’m not going to be stranded.’

‘Let’s go,’ said Diana, using her registered nurse voice, ‘We’ll fit!’

And we did.

A large illuminated picture of Jesus in the carpark couldn’t be missed – the Samoan people are well-known for their religious devotion – I offered a silent thank you to the Creator.

Jesus overlooking the airport carpark - I did feel blessed
Jesus is overlooking the airport carpark – I did feel blessed!

The drive to Aniva’s Place took about an hour with plenty of kangaroo-hopping and stalling. Christiana kept apologising for her lack of experience with the manual car she’d borrowed. However, the slower than usual trip enabled Christiana to deliver Samoa uncut- the good and the bad.

She explained the speed limit in Apia and other areas of Upolu was  40 km/h around Apia or 56 km/h on the open road. Even slower in many cases because there are plenty of speed humps.

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Apia’s population is between 37,000-38,000 and comprises 45 villages and cars are expected to slow down. It’s very pleasant not to have traffic roaring past, and I found traditional Samoan courtesy and relaxed attitude extended to the way people drove.

The other anomaly about driving in Apia is the ability to turn left at red traffic lights if the way is clear –  it can be disconcerting the first time it happens. This rule probably a hangover from when Samoa switched from driving on the right side of the road to the left-hand side in 2009. They made the change and aligned with Australia and New Zealand. Six years down the track I saw no evidence of the disaster opponents prophesied, but it certainly made headlines and international news at the time.

Christiana confirmed there was a feral/stray dog problem. (We noticed plenty of dogs mooching by the side of the road.) ‘If walking and you become worried  pretend to pick up a stick, and most will run away.’

‘Hilary, the lady I have as a contact told me to carry an umbrella – flicking that open will usually scare them,’ I said, ‘and an umbrella is a good sunshade.’

‘Good idea,’ said Christiana, ‘and you’ll need a sun shade, it gets hot and humid by midday.’

She pointed out the special cages on poles. These were for rubbish, raised off the ground, so the dogs didn’t rummage.

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There is a special police unit to deal with dogs, which had just performed a cull, picking up unregistered dogs for slaughter. The culls happen periodically and are controversial, but I saw plenty of dogs searching hungrily for food and water and lying panting or asleep in the heat. Strays will suffer either way.

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The sign reads Dog Management Unit and the building extends for several blocks.
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Many of the dogs are either white or brown and very similar in looks.

Here is an account from missionary Reverend John Betteridge Stair 1815-1898: OLD SAMOA OR FLOTSAM AND JETSAM FROM THE PACIFIC OCEAN

At the time of first contact with Europeans the only mammals found on Samoa were dogs, cats, pigs, and rats, the three former, if not the latter, having been apparently introduced into the islands by the original settlers, or from later intercourse. Others have since been introduced, and have thriven well, horses, cattle, and goats being now abundant…

The dog, Maile or Uli, from u, to bite, and li, to grin, or show the teeth, was found on all the islands, but the breeds having become so much mixed it is difficult to say what was the original stock. I think it was a small breed, with sharp-pointed ears, traces of which are sometimes seen. Dogs were formerly eaten by the Samoans, as at other islands; of late years, however, the practice has been discontinued. Many dogs had run wild in the forests, and occasionally came down to the settlements-and made a dismal howling as they prowled about and searched for food. I once got a glimpse of one at a distance, in the bush, but it was very shy.

Apart from one day, when I walked into town, I heeded everyone’s warning (Samoans and Europeans) and took taxis.  At between $5-10 tala ($2.50-5.00 AUS), it would have been silly to risk my health in the heat or an attack by a dog. The day I walked I have to admit there were a couple of dogs ‘with lean and hungry looks’ slouching nearby that made me nervous.

Christiana pointed out the architecture. The Samoans live in fales, designed for their lifestyle and the weather – sleeping in fales without solid walls allows the sea breeze to pass through. We noticed many fales were open, others strung up curtains for privacy, and others have full or half walls. I can imagine that dogs were traditionally and still are a security because they are territorial. Each night at Aniva’s, I certainly knew if anyone was still about walking or driving because neighbourhood dogs barked and howled.

A typical modern fale at the Tourist Information Centre
A typical modern fale at the Tourist Information Centre
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A typical village on road from airport

The noise level of open-style living a disadvantage  – more than one tourist complained of snoring and ‘bodily noises’ disrupting their sleep when they stayed in the famous fales built on the beaches. ‘And, I never knew the ocean was so loud,’ declared one young man from Bristol, England. His last night in Samoa he booked into Aniva’s Place looking forward to an uninterrupted night’s sleep. I guess for unacclimatised westerners ear plugs should be packed!

Sunday is still a traditional church day  – Samoa being a traditional society. I was privileged to be invited to attend church with Aniva and enjoy the special lunch (to’ona’i)  cooked afterwards. I was her honoured guest, and she had been to the market at 5.00am to choose the fish for the meal. Spices are an integral part of Samoan cuisine designed to saturate the senses and delight the palate. They don’t need any lessons on ‘slow food’ – sourcing their ingredients locally with the emphasis on fresh. No fast food here (although sadly McDonalds have opened in Apia) and mealtimes are for relaxing, enjoying, communicating – and laughter – Samoans have a great sense of humour.

This generosity and caring evident from the first day when Aniva was awake at 5.20am to welcome me to the hotel! Aniva’s Place may not be classed as a 5-star luxury hotel, but the treatment is five stars plus.

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Fish cooked with a special sauce, breadfruit and taro and Samoan ‘spinach’ – taro leaves cooked in coconut cream – all delicious.  Aniva prepared fried chicken too in case I didn’t like the meal, but it remained untouched.

 I had done some homework before I went to Samoa;  the government’s tourism website informative:

In Samoan culture food is a social event that brings together family and friends to share what bountiful wonders nature has provided. As the sun rises in the east, young men are paddling their canoes out in the lagoon to catch fish, while others have gone into the plantations to cultivate and harvest what is needed for the daily meals.

The bounty of the ocean provides crayfish, snapper, masimasi, octopus, tuna and more, caught that morning and served that evening. The plantations of bananas, taro, tropical fruits and vegetables picked that day add to the freshness of the meals. And with the freshness of all this bounty, it’s the flavours that have your taste buds wondering why it never tastes this good at home.

Breakfast at Aniva’s provided a variety of Samoan cuisine with choices for a western style breakfast if desired. Fresh papaya each morning followed by banana pancakes (thin like crepes) or round pancakes (panikeke Lapotopoto) more than filling for me. There were freshly squeezed juices and coffee on offer, but Aniva and her morning helper Ciah (short for Lucia) soon discovered my addiction to tea!

The staff helping Aniva treated like family – another younger Ciah employed for cooking and housework as well as Siosi (George) who cleaned the pool, did basic maintenance and looked after the garden.

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The two Ciahs and Siosi having a break by the pool

Aniva’s Place was truly a home away from home – it is where she lives. Evidence of her life with husband Bob (now deceased) and her two sons (one a doctor in the UK, the other a rugby player there) are all around. Her interest in guests’ welfare is sincere.  I was ‘late’ back one evening after a day out with Hilary, which culminated in an unplanned, lovely meal at her home. Aniva was so relieved nothing had happened to me. ‘I was ready to call the police because you never said you’d be late!’

I apologised and took the scolding – her concern genuine and made me feel even safer than before. In fact, Aniva’s Place is so secure I never had a key to my room and never locked it.

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Another bonus of choosing Aniva’s Place was her intimate knowledge of Samoa – her father had been one of the longest- serving prime ministers, and her older sister is still a member of parliament. There is a lot of respect attached to her name – and she commands respect! Unsurprisingly, I want to return so won’t pack away the essentials to take yet!

Samoan survivial kit - insect repellent, sunblock, water, fan, and a cool sarong
Samoan survival kit – insect repellent, sunblock, water, fan, and sarong.

Vailima – Robert Louis Stevenson’s Samoan Home

Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.

Robert Louis Stevenson

The Stevenson clan: Robert, his wife Fanny and her son Lloyd, and Robert’s widowed mother settled on the island of Upolu in Samoa in 1890. RLS had a house built at the foot of Mt Vaea, which he called Vailima, and he continued to write, but also became an advocate for the Samoans.

Vailima, a beautiful island plantation home has been restored and is now a world-class museum set in a national nature reserve and botanical garden. A tour in its coolness a welcome relief when I descended Mt Vaea via the Road of the Loving Hearts. In the house, there are many photographs of life at Vailima with the Stevenson Family.

The home and grounds have been restored to reflect the comfort expected in colonial times, but also the use of many Samoan building products. It is easy to imagine RLS writing here and filling the spacious rooms with many visitors.

The tasteful restoration as accurate as possible and the house repaired and reinvented as a museum by American benefactors who set up a foundation to raise money. Tilafaiga Rex Maughan, its primary benefactor, chairs the Foundation. Two board appointees represent the Government of Samoa. The Board oversees the fiscal, regulatory and policies of the not-for-profit entity.

The Vailima estate was purchased in 1900 as the official residence for the German governor. After British/Dominion confiscation, it served successively as the residence for the New Zealand administrator and the Samoan head of state after independence before being reclaimed as important national heritage.

It is a golden maxim to cultivate the garden for the nose, and the eyes will take care of themselves.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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The guides giving the tours of the house are extremely well-versed in all things RLS. As you walk through the Great Hall, RLS’s Library, his Smoking Room,  five bedrooms and numerous nooks and crannies they share anecdotes from the life of the famous author. They point out what is authentic and what is a reproduction.

The tour at $20 tala ($10 Aus) superb value. The highlight being the guide singing the Requiem from RLS tombstone – a spine-tingling moment. The Samoan’s have a reputation for memorable voices like the Welsh. Tips are not expected but considering how poor most Samoans are (an average wage of $150 tala per week) this would be the moment to be generous.

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RLS wanted fireplaces and a Smoking Room to remind him of Scotland. The fires were never lit!  Throughout the house, the darkness of the beautiful polished wood softened by large windows and French doors letting in the wealth of Samoan sunshine. The Great Hall restored with Californian redwood and replica furniture.The Tapa Room has the local wall covering called siapo or tapa from the original cultural pattern.

Tapa is a cloth made of vegetable fibre and stained in various striking patterns. Widely used by the Samoans for clothing, curtains, beds, and many other purposes, today any clothing from tapa is ceremonial or for the tourists.

Upstairs the bedrooms reflect the various personalities of the household. A photograph of RLS’s mother could be a slimmer Queen Victoria a la the dark dress and crocheted cap.  Mrs Stevenson senior didn’t cope with the heat, disliked the house and complained daily about its gloominess – even the view of a tranquil garden from her window couldn’t console her.

There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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Fanny and RLS slept in separate rooms because he liked to write at night, but he had a secret door/hatch installed in the wall so they could talk to each other when lying in bed. RLS was often ill, and Fanny became his nurse as well as looking after everyone else in the household plus many of the local Samoans. The sick bed and medicine chest often used according to Fanny’s biographer:

A disease of the tropics, said to be transmitted by the bite of mosquitoes, which causes enormous enlargement of the parts affected. Mrs. Stevenson cured this boy, Mitaele, of elephantiasis by Dr. Funk’s remedy of rubbing the diseased vein with blue ointment and giving him a certain prescribed drug.

As I walked through the rooms and examined the photographs and paraphernalia, it was easy to imagine the scents and sounds of a busy household. The Stevenson’s hospitality matched the welcome and friendliness the Samoans are famous for so there would have been laughter, chatter and music.

Talk is by far the most accessible of pleasures. It costs nothing in money, it is all profit, it completes our education, founds and fosters our friendships, and can be enjoyed at any age and in almost any state of health.

Robert Louis Stevenson

One of the ways the RLS Museum and grounds are able to remain for posterity is by generous donations, entry fees and also hiring out the grounds for celebrations. It has become popular for weddings, but the stipulation is ‘no alcohol’, the wedding must be dry to minimise damage to the heritage property.

The day I visited, the final preparations were being added for a wedding that evening. One of the guides urged me to look inside the marquees and confided the wedding planner was famous in Samoa. Perhaps I’d seen the advertisement on television, ‘You know about Fa’afafine?’

I smiled away my ignorance as I went to have a look at the preparations that had taken two days and vowed to look up Fa’afafine later.

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Fa’afafine of Samoa are Samoa’s 3rd gender – the term  fa’a means ‘to be’ and fafine means ‘a woman’. Fa’afafine are not just cross-dressers nor are they males reared as females (a myth often believed by foreigners). Mostly they see themselves as female despite the gender markers, and they grow up choosing to identify with the female rather than the male gender.

Acceptance levels of fa’afafine are at an all time high with the Samoan Prime Minister patron of the Fa’afafine Association. However, some villages and districts treat fa’afafine differently although I didn’t see any evidence of this in my short time in Apia. In fact whenever fa’afafine were mentioned or seen around Apia everyone seemed proud.

Samoan culture treats and respects fa’afafine. Western culture through religious influences does not so the fa’afafine entrench themselves in their culture in order to be accepted into the community, with resounding and remarkable success.

My day at Vailima and Mt Vaea was a resounding success too – increasing my knowledge on so many aspects of Samoan history and modern day culture. I left the gorgeous surrounds to the tinkling laughter of the ‘celebrity’ wedding planner and helpers.

I reflected on Samoa, RLS and life in general and agreed

That man is a success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much.

Robert Louis Stevenson