Samoa: Ride on time

By Dan Ahwa

Sometimes the best part of going somewhere, is the getting there, writes Dan Ahwa, won over by by Samoa's one-of-a-kind buses.

One of the many brightly painted buses of Samoa. Photo / Dan Ahwa
One of the many brightly painted buses of Samoa. Photo / Dan Ahwa

There's no better way to explore Samoa's big island of Savaii than on a bright green bus with yellow window frames and roof, aptly named Paradise in Heaven.

The buses are such national icons they deserve their own museum... except that the museum pieces are out on the roads carrying people around.

They're the perfect demonstration of what is really meant by that old Samoan adage "fai fai lemu" - or "take it easy" - with their flexible timetables, boisterous nature, loud music and larger-than-life presence on the road. And I was keen to try them out. But how do you travel on a transport system based on fai fai lemu?

Tip No 1: "Most buses in Samoa go in the same direction as there aren't many roads, particularly on Savaii," explains my hotel manager Seti. "So people usually catch the bus based on their favourite colour or the bus that plays their favourite music".

Tip No 2: Each bus carries the name of the village that will be their final destination, so with the aid of a map you can quickly decide if it's going your way.

Tip No 3: Locals are more than happy to point you in the right direction. On my first journey I inquired whether I was waiting at the right stop to take me into Savaii's main town centre of Salelologoa. Confirmation came with a cheeky grin and a request for a gold tala coin to fill a shortage of fare money. I happily obliged.

Moments later I waved at an approaching bus and had my first encounter with the true Samoan beauty of Paradise in Heaven, colourful, loud and unmissable.

I guessed it was probably one of the original buses as the seats, reminiscent of old church pews, looked like they hadn't been changed since it was constructed.

The entire ceiling was plastered with brightly coloured Hawaiian print fabric. The driver's rear view mirror was framed by plastic frangipanis. Small figurines of Jesus and Mary sat on the dashboard and the front window was framed with a row of hot pink fairy lights.

"They are good for driving at night" says the driver, who notices my look of amusement.

That first journey was a 45-minute ride from my beach bungalow style accommodation at Le Lagoto Beach Resort, in the village of Fagamalo, all the way westbound towards Savaii's main town centre of Salelologoa and on to the village of Palauli to check out the Afu Aa'u waterfall and the tapa cloth and fine mats being produced by local woman Taumuli Salu (a must-see while in Savaii).

The buses usually stop anywhere they like, and in some villages, you'll find handy bus stops that are just as brightly coloured as the buses themselves, with hanging banana bunches that provide a handy snack while you wait.

Midway through that trip we got to the village of Asaga and the bus started to fill up. I knew that Samoan etiquette prescribes that if an elderly person needs a seat and the bus is full you offer your seat to them. Indeed, the respect shown to elders is one of the most charming features of Samoan society. I gave up my seat to an elderly man who showed his appreciation with a toothy grin and a "fa'afetai" (thank you).

However, Samoans are almost as thoughtful to younger passengers and try their hardest to see no one has to stand up. Indeed, there may be some situations where you'll end up sitting on somebody's lap, or vice versa. If you are worried about your personal space it's best to avoid travelling at peak hours in the early evening.

Samoans generally pay before they exit the bus so it's a good idea to have coins at the ready. After a week of travelling by bus I got used to having spare change in my pockets. But I never went as far as the locals who put spare coins in their ears (lavalavas don't have pockets).

Part of what makes bus rides enjoyable is the insight each trip offers into local musical tastes, with Samoan rap or reggae blasting from the speaker systems.

My trip to Palauli included an accompanying soundtrack of Bob Marley, UB40, and Samoa's own version of Sonny and Cher, Penina Tiafau (if you want to feel like you're on your own Paradise in Heaven while commuting around by bus in Auckland traffic, this is the playlist for your earphones).

It's sometimes difficult having much of a conversation on a bus because most of the time you have to shout over the music. Rather, a bus trip is meant to be a chance for locals to enjoy their journey and indulge in their favourite pastime of people-watching. And when you're on an island as beautiful as Savaii you'll want to make the most of taking in the sights.

But I did manage to have a few delightful chats with school kids, farmers on their way to work on plantations and even a nun, who found my chosen mode of transport admirable, particularly when most tourists prefer the air-conditioned tour buses or rental cars.

"It's a good way to meet Samoans and make friends," she commented, and after making friends with several commuters on my bus trips I heartily agreed.

Upon exiting at my final stop I noticed one elderly woman who'd joined us from the beginning of the trip, sitting alone after everyone had disembarked, ready for the journey back to Fagamalo.

She'd obviously had nowhere to go and was just enjoying a day going back and forth on the bus.

I was quite envious. Once you're on one of these buses it's hard to get off. But luckily, if you do, there's bound to be another one along soon.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Virgin Samoa has regular flights from New Zealand.

Where to stay: Le Lagoto Beach Resort.

Further information: See samoa.travel.

Dan Ahwa was assisted by Virgin Samoa and Le Lagoto Beach Resort in Savaii.

- NZ Herald

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