From the Ships Navigator
We will embark the local pilot at 10:30 am and sail on a southerly course towards our berth in Apia, Western Samoa. The weather forecast calls for an outside temperature of 78 degrees, a chance of showers and a moderate breeze blowing from the east-northeast with a force of 3. When we left Fiji, our arrival time in Apia had been calculated to be around 6 am, however one has to remember that although modern cruise ships are engineering marvels using the latest in marine technology – stuff happens – as explained below.
Welcome to Apia, Western Samoa
Apia, on the island of Upolu, is the capital of Samoa and the only place in Samoa that you could call a city and really mean it. For all of its modern details, such as banks and burger outlets, it retains the picturesque charm of its history. All the traders, beachcombers, Pirates, whalers, and fallen missionaries who have washed up on the shores of Apia still seem to be present in Apia’s slightly rundown air and the old pula trees shading the streets. From the center of town, Apia’s neat villages spread west along the level coastal area and climb up the gentle slopes towards the hills and into the valleys. The clock tower in the center of town is a memorial to WWII casualties. Just to the west of the clock tower is the Flea Market, which has craft stalls selling everything from cheap clothing and siapo (dyed bark sheets) to ‘ava bowls and coconut-shell jewelry. Several churches are scattered around Apia with the largest of them being the Catholic Church on the waterfront. The Anglican Church although smaller, has the most beautiful stained glass windows, while at the Congregational Christian church are the clean-picked bones of the unfortunate Reverend John Williams, a missionary cannibalized by the natives. Writer Robert Louis Stevenson spent the last four years of his life here, and is buried on Mt. Vaea, overlooking both the city and the home he built, Vailima, now a museum in his honor.
Our Technical Problem
As I stated in my introduction, our arrival was delayed by some two hours due to a “technical” problem (Our Captain’s words). Before I try to explain the difficulty I must give you a primer on modern-day cruise ship propulsion systems. (As I understand it) Traditionally, large cruise ships required one or two harbor tugboats to assist them during docking/undocking. In what was, I can only assume, an attempt to save time and money when coming into and departing from ports all over the world, a system of “bow and, I believe on some ships, stern thrusters” were built into the hulls of large ships. Using these thrusters, a captain could slide his ship sideways into and away from piers, without the assistance of tugboats, and if a turning basin was available, rotate his ship 180 degrees in just the length of his ship. The next advancement in maneuvering came with the development of an electrical powered propellers or “screws” suspended beneath the stern of the ship, with the capability of rotating 360 degrees. This system also had the added advantage of eliminating the ship’s rudder. These new propulsion systems were called “Azipods.” Since the motors in these units are powered by electricity, provided by huge diesel electric generators within the ships hull, a lot of vibration is eliminated, providing a smoother cruise for passengers, and incredible maneuverability for the ship. Although there were some problem with the preliminary deployment of this concept, more and cruise ships are being built using Azipods.
We had one day of transit time between Fiji and Samoa, and it was while some of us were sitting in the aft dining room having lunch, that we all agreed that there seemed to be an abnormal amount of vibration in the dining room ceiling. We were soon to find out why when the Captain gave his 1300 hours report over the ships PA system. He explained that the starboard Azipod (this ship has two) had to be shut down because of a cooling problem. With only one Azipod operable, our speed was cut to 17 knots instead of 20 – 22, which would delay our arrival by around two hours, but that we would leave port at 6 PM instead of 4:30 as originally scheduled. We were later told by a member of the crew, that repairs would be made in our next port; Apia. In actuality, testing of the repairs took a little longer than estimated and we sailed shortly after 7 PM, under full power.
We entered port accompanied by three harbor tugs, and one those three looked as if it was capable of towing large ships. I do not think HAL and the Skipper were taking any chances of maneuvering failures in this small harbor, all went well however and soon we were lining the starboard rails to enjoy a Samoan dance troop welcome. On board our “shoppers” were salivating at the three large portable craft pavilions set up on the dock. As the tour busses started lining up, we started to notice something different. Only one or two of the more than sixteen buses had windows, and looked quite old! Uh-oh, there is sure to be some complaining if we have to ride on those “things” I thought! They resembled the school buses that we used to ride to school in back in the 50’s. What fun I then thought, I hope Barbara and I get to experience riding in those. They were all gaily decorated with unusual paint jobs and woven palm fronds on the outside rear view mirrors; some even had large palm fronds strapped to the sides, just below the open windows. Sure enough, bus number nine was one of these well-used beauties, complete with wooden floors and wooden (non-padded) seats. It did not look like the sun was going to shine soon and we were sure that those sitting in the window seats were going to eventually get drenched. I really cannot explain why, but here were around twenty pampered passengers, that seemed to get caught up in an “Island” mood, and their discomforts seemed to not be that uncomfortable any more. I think everyone must have realized that this was the best these wonderful people had to offer, and this is their way of life – deal with it.
After a short ride through the small city past numerous churches, of seemingly every denomination, we arrived at our first stop; a combination bus transfer point and village market. We were given an incredulous TEN minutes here, the guide said! Well I guess in Samoan time he really meant closer to a half hour, because that is how long we were there. I think this stop was meant just to whet the appetite of the die-hard shoppers among us. Our tour was billed as “the Highlights of Apia and the RLS Museum.” RLS standing for Robert Louis Stevenson, who is a local literary hero who spent the last four years of his life here. After a quick stop at the Parliament Building, where this government was in session, we headed for the museum.
Among the most famous Samoan residents, Robert Louis Stevenson was admired for his mastery of what Samoans love best: story telling. Hey called him tusitala (storyteller). His home, Vailima (five waters) is just three miles from Apia. His tomb, above his home at the top of steep Mount Vaea, is inscribed with the haunting words of his requiem: … under the wide and starry sky, dig the grave and let me lie. Glad did I live and gladly die, And I laid me down with a will. This be the verse you grave for me: Here he lies where he longed to be. Home is the sailor, home from the sea and the hunter home from the hill. It is hard to capture a memory in a place so revered by the locals when you have to share the space with two or three hundred other people, however, I will always remember the gentle young Samoan museum guide who softly sang the words to his requiem to those assembled in the room where he wrote some of his most famous works. She spoke with such reverence for this man. She also taught me the correct pronunciation of Samoa – the first “a” is very soft, very lovely.
On our return to the ship we asked to be let off at the Aggie Grey Hotel. We rested inside at the original 1940s American style hamburger bar and beer hall. After Barbara wandered around taking pictures, we joined some friends from the ship for a local beer, and a sandwich.
We still had some tala’s left and Barbara wanted to walk back into town to the Marketi Fou, this is the local “flea” market that offers souvenirs and handicrafts. I had remarked on the beauty of a lava-lava (wrap around “skirt”) that I saw a Samoan gentleman wearing, and said “I would wear something like that to church”. Barbara wanted to do some serious shopping so she sent me off to have another beer. Sometimes she takes what I say too serious and so you can guess what she bought me in the market. Yep! It is a very nice piece of local clothing, and beautiful souvenir of this wonderful country.
On our walk back to the ship, nearly everyone we met had a greeting for us and we felt sad that we had so little time here. The shopping pavilion was still open but Barbara had only 30 minutes before “all aboard” and she made excellent use of that time.
It was dark when we sailed away and as we dropped off the harbor pilot our escorting tug, gave a responding salute to the Captain’s honorary farewell, as they turned for home.
In closing I must tell you that most everyone we talked with of our visit felt they had such positive experiences, I am sure some will return. Given the opportunity, I know Barbara and I would.
Till Kona, in four days, farewell,
Jack and Barbara