Monday, July 30, 2012

Apia and more...

On the trip to Apia we got to see some more of the island as we travelled overland, taking a different route to the one we had taken from Aggie Greys to the Sinalei. We travelled through several villages (including David Tua’s hometown) and passed many family farms and gardens, some of which had stalls selling their surplus goods. Others sell their goods through collectives or to exporters based in Apia, where there is a produce/fish market and a craft market. Both are open six days a week, Monday to Saturday. The craft market that we spent several hours at was in a large warehouse with rows of small stalls selling jewellery, carvings, jandals, t-shirts, weaving and numerous other things. Almost all of the goods seemed targeted to tourists but there were a lot of local people wandering through as well. The most crowded area was the food court, particularly at lunch time, but I was really amazed that almost all the food looked to be deep fried. The only things that weren’t were banana cake and fresh orange juice as far as I could see. We ended up going to a cafĂ© and getting something a bit healthier looking, which had the bonus of being cooler with air conditioning, as by that time we were beginning to melt a bit in the heat.
After lunch we walked the rest of the way trough town on our way to Aggie Greys by the harbour where we were meeting the taxi van. We found out that Aggie Grey is a business empire of sorts in Samoa or at least on Upolu, as there are two locations that the hotels is located at as well as several souvenir/food outlets we saw with the same name.

On our trek we followed along the boulevard/shore wall and enjoyed the sea breeze. This also gave us a great view of the harbour and the church and government buildings along the road. It was fascinating to see and work out the influences of various international groups and other countries and how that has changed over time as seen by the various buildings age, size and quality. One major feature of Samoa was the number and variety of churches, both in Apia and along the village roads. The level of pride that the villages and congregations place in these buildings was evident in the size, structure and “flashiness” of the buildings. Also the fact that a number of the existing churches were clearly being added to or upgraded reinforced this perception. It is a major part of peoples lives in the villages and pretty much everything stops on Sunday’s as people attend church once or twice on that day, as well as spending time with family on this ‘rest day’.

My Mum, Nana, best friend and sister attended a church on the Sunday while we were there. They travelled to a local Catholic church, near the resort, although there is a variety nearby. They told me it was a lovely service, although they couldn’t understand much if any of what was said as it was spoken in Samoan. But they all felt that the most beautiful things about the experience was listening to the singing and seeing the ladies clothes and hats. It was also a great way to see how communities come together and how families interact and behave. It was a particularly good place to learn about the protocols and hierarchies of respect. My sister mentioned a little child who was being disruptive and so was being handed around amongst family to settle him, but in the end was too much trouble for someone so was sent to the granddad or one of the other male elders. The elder man gave him a tap which quieted the child and made him settle and then the granddad gave the child a hug which made the kid smile again before he settled down for the rest of the service. It was interesting to hear a story like this to know how children and adults communicate in these situations.

Another experience of a part of Samoan culture was the Culture Day that the Sinalei holds weekly. There is a talk about weaving and other aspects of Samoan culture such as Ava (kava) drinking and sharing some traditional stories which goes for one hour, then a talk and demonstration of Umu (hangi) cooking later in the afternoon. It was interesting to compare what I knew of things from other countries in the Pacific including New Zealand that have related cultural aspects and seeing how they connected to what we were being told. The day was finished with a dinner cooked in the Umu that we had seen earlier and a cultural performance of dance, singing and fire throwing/dancing. It was very impressive with the voices of the performers creating such lovely melodies with the accompaniment of various drums and a guitar. The fire performing was truly amazing with the youngest performer being only eleven years old.

All the employees and performers at the resort were local people who all walked to work. It seemed that the majority of people, from school kids to the elderly walked everywhere and if they didn’t walk they might take one of the quirky public buses. We saw these during our day in Apia, with their old school box-y look with bright paint work and quirky individual names. We were told that the buses were converted trucks with the shell of the cabin with the passenger seats attached to the deck on the back of truck. I think these old trucks may have been old army trucks possibly from World War 2.

As I mentioned the roads are not particularly crowded, at least they weren’t at the times we were out. The private vehicles we saw were a mix of older cars and flatbed trucks that were a mix of European and American made cars, so some were left and some right hand drive, which was confusing to me. We saw a larger number of vehicles for the first time when we reached Apia on the market day coming up to a set of traffic lights. Initially I was a bit surprised to know that Apia had several sets of traffic lights but then I found out that frequently they don’t work so it didn’t really matter to the people. It then became a matter of close your eyes and trust the driver, two of the intersect lights that morning weren’t in operation at the time. Other then the slightly scary experience at the lights everything else about the roads was pretty good.
All the roads are sealed (or at least the ones we travelled on) and seemed in really good condition but they are a lot narrower then the main roads we are used to in NZ. The marked speed limit seemed to be quite low but many of the drivers on the ‘open road’ seemed to be treating it as a guideline more then a rule (particularly the drivers we had). But for all the ‘playing chicken’ with oncoming vehicles and dodging dogs, chickens and numerous school children the roads seemed very safe. I think partly this was because of the frequent speed bumps to catch out unwary speeders and that people generally seemed like chilled out friendly drivers.

Food and Accommodation

In Samoa the main exports are unprocessed goods like fish, banana, coconuts, taro and other food goods. There are processed forms of coconut products like coconut milk and copra that are also on the major export list as well as other lesser products. Many of these locally and regionally grown goods were part of the menu at both Aggie Greys Lagoon Beach Resort and at the Sinalei Spa & Resort where we stayed for the week. The focus for the Sinalei menu was organic and locally grown, as part of their efforts to support local growers. The major feature was fresh fruit, used in the breakfast menu and desserts and sauces in the lunch and dinner menus. Fish and prawns were the main protein (understandably) on the lunch and dinner lists which was cooked in a number of different forms, which were always delicious. One of my favourites was seafood pasta that I had one lunch, it was spicier then I would usually eat but I loved it. I was also surprised by the availability of beef, chicken and pork on the menu. I had forgotten about the long presence of pigs and chickens on the islands. These were introduced by the colonialists, but I definitely didn’t expect cattle. According to one of the local drivers many people raise their own chickens and pigs and some people keep small herds of cattle in amongst the banana palms and other fruit trees. One of the food items I enjoyed the most was the papaya or pawpaw, which I ate most days as a smoothie or as a crumble for dessert, aside from any part it might have had as a sauce or condiment in other dishes. It was a surprise for me to enjoy the fruit so much, as back home I am not usually much of a fruit person, but the papaya from the island is amazing, so different and much better then what is available in New Zealand.

The other big industry for Samoa like New Zealand is tourism. When we were there it was during term time and right at the end of university break time, so there were fewer travellers around. Because of our flight times, arriving so late/early, we stayed one night at Aggie Greys about 10 minutes away from the airport. It was a fabulous introduction to the tourist experience on the island. The grounds and main buildings were beautiful with many tropical plants and architecture in a mix of traditional and luxurious European style. An example of this was the impressive lobby/arrival desk, which was a large high roofed Fale (traditional open sided Samoan house/meeting area). It was an intricate wooden structure with luxurious European fittings like chandeliers and marble/polished tile floors. The guest rooms where we spent that night were much simpler but certainly comfortable, with an accessible open plan bathroom and air-conditioning. In the morning things looked just as lovely, as we looked around at breakfast. As I mentioned the main guest areas were large and luxurious, with a pool and spa treatment rooms, but the guest rooms were simple. This makes sense to me, as who really plans to spend much time in their room when you are visiting such a beautiful place.  I’m not sure whether there were a range of rooms with different layouts and facilities or whether they are all the same. The resort as a whole had more of a family and traveller feel and seemed quite active, although the initial impression had been luxury and decoration, when we arrived in the quiet of the night. The staff at the resort were very polite but the most sociable were the desk assistants and the manager who was a young charismatic Samoan man called Giovanni who previously worked at the Sinalei which is where we stayed for the next four nights.

In comparison the Sinalei was quite different. My initial impression was that it was similar to Aggies, although the entrance was less imposing and formal there was still a feel of luxury and quality. But this impression of luxury I think was also to do with the setting and the balance of unfamiliar and exotic architecture. Everything about the Sinalei was beautiful and had an atmosphere of relaxation and calmness about it, with natural looking water features alongside the main gathering areas like the dining area and bar. This atmosphere of calm and relaxation as well as the lower number of guests contrasted with the level of activity and larger numbers at Aggie Greys. The people who greeted us at the Sinalei were personal and friendly, seeming genuinely interested in who we were. I suppose it helped that the resort was smaller and the guests are restricted to 12 years and older. This helps to maintain the atmosphere that the resort is known for. It wasn’t that the people at the other accommodation had been unfriendly but these people seemed truly genuine and had the time and energy to stop for a chat. We, my sister, friend and I in particular, made friends with the guys and young women who were the waiting staff in the dining area. They would stop by our table on their rounds to check in with us and share a joke or answer a question. I also really appreciated their patience as sometimes some of my family members (who will remain un-named) can be a little indecisive. We also enjoyed learning some Samoan language from a couple of the guys who were generous with their time and patient with our awkward but enthusiastic attempts.

While we were staying at the Sinalei we had a ‘Spa Day’ the day before we went home, which was a lovely way to end the trip. I had a facial and a hand massage while the rest of the family had different types of massage. All of the sessions were in small cabins down by the water with windows that could be opened to the sea breeze. It was a lovely relaxing experience, although unfortunately the digger was being operated on the barge in the harbour, which was a bit noisy. The ladies who did the treatments were all so attentive and kind, being particularly gentle with me. I was surprised to find out that the lady who did my treatment had a relative who was deaf, but worked as a wood carver for the resort. It was so nice to hear that there were some opportunities for people with disabilities on the island, particularly after our trip to Apia and seeing a number of buskers and people just waiting on the street who were blind due to illness.

I will talk more in my next entry about my experience of Apia and some of my impressions of the transport and my tourist’s experience of the wonderful Samoan culture.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Tropical experience

Travelling to Samoa was a totally surreal experience for me as I had never really thought I would go to such a place and it was simultaneously so similar to but so different from the brochures, advertising and images that are conjured by traveller’s stories. There were of course the palm trees, banana and coconut trees as well as all the other gorgeous bright tropical vegetation and flowers but there was so much more to every aspect of the country and its people that I hardly know where to start.

I guess firstly I would have to admit that my experience was not exactly comprehensive in any respect but I feel that the experience I had did change some of my perceptions of the country as well as confirming some impressions and things I already knew. I think to do my trip justice and to give an informative description of the country and my experiences I will probably break it into several posts to this journal.

Starting with the geography of the country; it is made up of two main volcanic rock islands called Upolu and Savaii, with 8 other islets in the surrounding waters (some inhabited and others uninhabited). Both main islands are mountainous at their heart with narrow inhabitable coastal plains. This is where most of the population live and work, most people live on family and community land, growing coconut, papaya and bananas as well as other food crops like bread fruit, taro and manioke. The capital Apia is on the northern edge of Upolu which is where the international airport is located. We flew into Apia International airport at about 1.30am on a Saturday (in July 2012) and it was approximately 26 degrees Celsius with quite a high humidity, although it is considered the ‘dry’ season at this time. We found out that although it was the dry season it actually ended up raining almost the entire time we were there on the southern coast where we stayed, which apparently is a reasonably recent change to the climate of the island. As Apia and the northern part of the island had apparently got sun for most of the same days, which we were told by locals at the resort that this had been the reverse pattern until several years ago. But despite the rain there really wasn’t any reason not to go out and enjoy the water and the scenery, as the temperature remained in the mid to high 20’s even without the presence of sun.

The islands are surrounded by coral reefs which mean most of the beaches are fairly sheltered, though there are still dangerous currents and undertows/rips that swimmers and snorkelers still have to watch out for. Also when swimming or snorkelling it is a really good idea to wear light canvas boat shoes or something like that as there are sharp coral and rock formations as well as the potential for things like stone-fish or other injurious sea-life. As well as the dangerous sea life, (which are few) there are many beautiful and non dangerous species to enjoy observing. Although I am not able to swim or snorkel due to my condition my family did enjoy the water on my behalf, taking part in the snorkelling, swimming and kayaking. They were fortunate enough to swim near sea turtles on several occasions in the waters near our resort and saw a variety of diverse brightly coloured coral fish. It was concerning to hear that what I think was the Crown of Thorns starfish was extremely evident along the reef. This along with the huge damage from the 2009 tsunami and other activities has and is having a hugely negative impact on the health of the reef and the ecosystem.

I got the impression that most of the fish that is caught in the area is from the reef or just outside of the reefs with only charters or big commercial fishing boats heading out to the deep water well outside the reefs. This is just what my Dad did as he is such an avid fisherman, taking a charter trip and catching and big yellow fin tuna. Another participant on the same charter boat caught a Masi masi which is a large green fish with a blunt squarish shaped head; it seemed to be quite a popular fish to eat and was served as the fish of choice at the resort. The other type of fish used, that I think was more often eaten by the locals was the Parrot fish which is a lot smaller then the grown Masi masi. I will talk more about the local crops, our trip to Apia markets and travelling around the island in my next entry.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Tropical Times

Travelling is generally a challenge at some point whether on a practical, emotional or psychological level. But for many people with a disability I would imagine it is more on the physical side of challenges. Certainly that is my experience because of my Muscular Dystrophy condition. Periodically I have played around with the idea of travelling again as my mood and health have ebbed and flowed. The most recent was my brief foray into day-dreams about a trip to America, which didn’t materialize. This then transformed into ideas of returning to Australia. Unfortunately I also had to face the practicalities of life regarding that idea as well. After that reality check I had put the idea of travel to bed. Coincidentally though, it wasn't long after that I was offered the temptation of a winter escape to Samoa with my family.

 It was initially a bit of a shock for me as I had never considered the Pacific Islands as a destination that would be suitable for me with all the equipment I have and my mobility restrictions. I am also by nature and necessity a create of comfort and like to be in places and situations where I can still be ‘independent’ in my electric wheel chair and all the other things that help me feel comfortable. So it took some persuasion from friends and family and some introspection on my own to decide that it was the right time to say ‘YES LETS!! I was still a little anxious about the practicalities but the family motto has always been ‘anything is possible if you want it enough’. So here I am a week out from my departure date and feeling much happier with just a few remaining butterflies in my stomach.

As always my adventures are learning experiences and require planning and strategizing on a level akin to a military invasion. Fortunately this trips plan has been in the capable hands of my mum and her local travel agent. In some ways this has been a weight off my mind after previous travel planning escapades involved me being in charge. This time though, with me not taking the lead it has been testing my inner conductor/control freak to have someone else make the arrangements. I have not entirely been hands off as mum has worked with me around finding out things I already know.  As a result of our shared input and her own planning mum has learned a lot about the challenges and complexities of travelling with my current condition, regulations of airlines and travel companies. All of which have changed since I last went overseas with the family when I was much younger. It has been great to bring out some of my previous learning’s, namely; which airlines can accommodate my needs, the information they need regarding mobility arrangements, seating, transport, packing and paperwork.

Because this expedition will be a new destination and circumstances are different I have had the chance to learn a few new things.
  1. Get a letter from your GP or specialist outlining your condition and listing any and all medication you will be travelling with. Keep a copy with you in your hand luggage and a copy in your suitcase for safety.
  2. Take your medication or at least a portion with you in labelled and/or sealed containers/bottles in case your luggage is lost in transit. This would be especially important if you need regular doses to stay well and functioning.
  3. If you are taking a manual wheelchair, make sure you have some way of securing foot rests and any other removable parts so that they can’t be lost. For example the manual chair I am taking has a removable head rest, back rest and foot plates and I am going to ensure that they can’t totally dismantle my chair. This will hopefully stop any damage or alterations to the specific settings on my seating.
  4. If you have a special cushion to sit on it is a great idea to take it with you for sitting comfortably on the aeroplane.
  5. Check with airlines or via your travel agent whether the airline will be able to provide the arrangements or assistance you need to board and exit the plan, as well as using the bathroom while flying if necessary. For me I will need a seat harness for the plane seat to help me sit upright and will also need an aisle chair to get to and from my seat. (An isle chair is a narrow, basic wheelchair that you can transfer into and be wheeled to your seat and then transfer or be assisted across.)
  6. Make sure you leave plenty of time for everything, including planning and research. This is particularly important if you need specific facilities or equipment. An example for me is the need to rent an oxygen concentrator for use at night. There were none available in Samoa that I could find but there is a company in New Zealand called Invacare who can rent out different machines, depending on the requirements.
  7. Take a basic tool kit if you are travelling with equipment, for example I will take an Allen key set, plumber’s waterproof tape and a tire patching kit to be able to make temporary repairs on my chair if needed.

These are the main points I have noted so far in my preparation. I hope to post another one or two posts before I leave and then I will post something hopefully either while I am away or when I return. Hopefully there wont be too much of a delay in coming up with a post when I get back. Fortunately I shouldn’t have to worry about jetlag as there is only approximately an hour’s difference between New Zealand and Samoa’s time zones. One thing I am definitely not looking forward to though is the climate shock when I get there, going from 10-12 degree days to 24-29 degree days and then the reverse when I return home, brrrrrr!!!

Monday, July 2, 2012


Attitudes are central to informing how we act and speak. As an advocate for disability rights and as someone with life experience of disability I know how important this is. This has had a big impact on the way I live and what I speak about in my public talks. Generally I am encouraged by people’s positive attitudes about disability awareness, inclusion and valuing of talents in individuals, rather then the focus on weakness, deficit and loss. It is one of my major focuses in my work with people, to help them realize what impact they can have to support and improve others lives just by their words.

I feel very strongly about issues of discrimination, disempowerment, control or inequality in any circumstance. But due to my personal experiences my main focus is disability. It is difficult to understand when people still hold on to old attitudes that have clearly and for good reasons become outdated and therefore obsolete. This brings me on to my main point of this little rant.

Yesterday at a gathering where I was speaking about my life, opportunities I have had and how important helpers have been in supporting this. I met someone who gave me a wakeup call on my perception that everyone had caught up with the memo about pity being out and positivity being in. But anyway, to make this situation clearer I will fill you in a bit more. As I have mentioned I speak about my life, the people who have been and are part of making it what it is, as well as some of the influencing factors like policy, societal values and attitudes. Overall I was happy with my performance and the audience seemed receptive to my message. But during my Q & A session I was confronted with something that I have not had to deal with for a long time- a person who seemed to pity me and my situation.

I speak for myself as a person, not just one with a disability, that I do not want pity! I do not ask for pity. I do not get out of bed each morning and think “How can I get more pity and sympathy today?”  As a result I had difficulty answering the questions without making pointed remarks about how I keep focused on the positive things in my life and tried to keep on topic. My reaction to this person was initially A) shock that they were going to be working in the disability field and B) surprisingly, anger. Anyone that knows me will say I generally would be the last person to show frustration but this experience really needled me. Am I over-reacting, I ask myself. Possibly! But I just don’t know how to comprehend this experience. Her attitude that came through in her questions and comments were of the “poor you” type. It was like getting slapped in the face with a wet fish.

This experience has clarified for me just how much I dislike being pitied and it has made me more determined to help change the remaining negative perceptions around disability. Yes, I admit there are hard days and times where things seem unfair, but we all have these kinds of days. So I ask everyone who lives with or has experienced disability do we need pity, or would we rather receive positive encouragement and support? I would say I would rather have the empowering and helpful input of people to make more things possible rather then focusing on what’s not.