On my way home from Australia - just like a boy on his way home from school might stop at the arcade to play - I stopped by Fiji and Samoa. How awesome was this going to be!? The only problem was: what more was there to live for, once one has already been to Fiji and Samoa? (... The arcade? I do like Pac-Man.)
My week in Samoa (which is what this story is about) was sandwiched in-between my week in Fiji. That's probably good, because Samoans are generally big, fat, happy black (Polynesian) people, and few people would want to get sandwiched between them.
The males go shirt-less, in baggy shorts that are a mixture of collaged colors. The females wear bright white t-shirts and "lavalava's" (thin, colorfully-designed wraps around their lower bodies). Both wore smiles.
They lived in houses that were basically four sticks holding up the corners of a thatch roof. These were called "fales". Everyone lived there: moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, kids; and they all slept on mats on the floor, except for the very old, who'd earned hammocks.
They lived in villages that were a line of these lazy fales, on quiet, main roads of new asphalt, lined (in the villages) with white rocks. The coastal villages (which they all were) sat on grass just above the maternally delicate ocean, or across from beaches being gushed by volcanic island channels. Inland from the coast, mountains covered in rainforest surrounded large valleys of palm trees. To every direction was a postcard.
In the villages, the people spent a huge part of their time playing cricket or rugby. When they were hungry, I guess, they went fishing or pulled large breadfruit from the trees.
I'd read that, upon reaching new villages, you should ask someone for permission to enter. I did this several times, and the villagers seemed surprised, and they always granted permission. As I walked around the country, nearly everyone said hi to me. Some girls shot marriage proposals at me. I found the tradition of asking for permission to enter villages very surprising, since Samoans are the friendliest and most inviting people I've ever met.
On my first day, attracted by the Samoans' reputation for having great voices, I attended a church that was filling fast. I'd only go to church in Samoa! The churchgoers were mostly dressed in white, with hats on the ladies. Their singing was beautiful. The women sang the high parts, the men the low; it was like a Mozard choir. I talked with the kid next to me, who promptly me invited me to his home for lunch.
The Leifi family served me a fish that had been cooked in the shape it had been caught, with one googly eye looking up. We ate two parts of the white breadfruit, called semu and uru, with a coconut and curry dip. The semu was sweet and soft, and the uru was harder and more meat-like. Lush, huge-leafed plants surrounded the yard.
I noticed that my church buddy's sister, Helen, was very cute, with unique, deliciously light caramel skin and short curvy hair. She had a royal Polynesian neck and an island contentedness in her eyes. Her mom would tell me, on another visit to the Leifi's, that Helen was in university and might be one of only thirty Samoans allowed to study overseas the next year. If Helen would've proposed, I might've said ... The family, on that first day, invited me to stay with them, but I foolishly ambitiously moved on.
Two days later, I passed a fale in which two kids eating lunch called to me to join them. And, what did we eat? Uru. I asked if they ever got sick of eating that. "Not really," they said.
I'd read that you could just go up to homes and ask for a place to sleep, but I never tried this. However, one night, on the concrete tropical-waterfront walkway of capital city Apia, seventeen-year-old Semu (he'd been named after the breadfruit, apparently) invited me into his house. His family, like many in the north of Upolo island, had now begun living in a little house.
I preferred the fales. A television at Semu's showed the Samoan or the Christian channel. A funny, large guy exercised on one of them (I forget which).
Semu, who, like many young guys, was thin but with a cute roundness to him, said he'd lived in New Zealand, he played rugby, and he now dated a 25-year-old American teacher. He played me a tape that was his Avele College's choral tribute to the country's late Prime Minister. It sounded like a mix between Mozart and The Little Mermaid, and I would eventually go out and buy some for souvenirs.
And so, after all this sneak-attack hospitality, I wasn't too concerned if I entered a village without a declaration of permission. I walked and hitchhiked and toured around Upolo.
At the Pappasseea sliding rocks in the rainforest, a flushing stream washed me down a slippery rock and dunked me out-of-control into a pool. Eight-year-old local boys appeared and scaled a straight wall, then leapt from twenty-five feet into the small natural pool - almost like diving into a bucket. I hadn't come to Samoa to be outdone by eight-year-olds. Precipitously on the wet rock wall, I leapt and dropped into the small, sufficiently-deep part of the pool. That uru must make a guy tough.
I visited the Piula Cave Pool, a freshwater pool which was half-swallowed by a hungry rock mouth, but my flashlight had broken, so I couldn't deeply explore the underwater passages in the back. I saw the forty-foot Falefa Falls. The 160-foot Fuipisia Falls fell so far past a tropical-tree-decorated cliff face that it stretched your queasy stomach to watch individual drops fall. The smaller, Tagaginga Falls, a double cataract, offered clear-green swimming, with two heights from which you could dive off. And an easily-climbable coconut palm stretched over white-green Return to Paradise Beach, where an old Hollywood film had been set.
At Palolo Deep, an underwater park and sanctuary in Apia, little white fish with orange lips and blue lines around their faces swam at me as if attacking. How many national capitals have marine sanctuaries within the city limits!?
Elsewhere underwater, a grey slug oozed out purple stuff. A warted warm retracted when I touched it. A white, black-spotted moray eel hid well in a coral-deformed rock. Flutefish, pufferfish, squirrelfish, and vanilla-caramel-chocolate butterflyfish competed to eat the coral. A place named Salinai Reef Resort offered the best off-shore snorkeling I've ever done; waves broke, perilously far from the beach, and I dove with turtles among currents swirling between twenty-foot slabs and spheres and forests of different-colored coral.
Wooo! Where else could I go? Robert Louis Stevenson's large, beautiful, pink estate sat upon a green lawn on a hill overlooking Apia. This house made of transported redwood trees, containing lionskin rugs, had been the author's home for five years but was now a museum.
While I traveled around Samoa, cars occasionally passed me, and if I stuck out my thumb, half of them stopped. I saw only a handful of white people on the island, but, once, I got picked up by a bus carrying the local boarding school for American trouble-makers. The early-teens' conversations were interesting: "When I hit him in the head with the shovel, I didn't think it would kill him. I just meant to damage him, not kill him. You know, but when the shovel came down, his skull just shattered." He spoke straightly, with little emotion. He still received hate letters from the parents of the boy he'd killed, and he would have to stay in Samoa until age twenty-one. He and his school-mates did flips beside me at Tagaginga Falls, and we had fun.
On that note, we'll turn to the MODERN ODDYSEUS' TOP 5!!!, which only gets love letters and the occasional fruitcake in the mail.
The Top 5 Best Things About Samoa! might be enough to convince a person to go there ... Just don't steal Helen Leifi from me ...
1. WORLD'S HAPPIEST PEOPLE
2. WORLD'S FRIENDLIEST PEOPLE
3. WORLD'S MOST BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY -
The weather is nice, too. In June (their winter, I guess), the temperature felt like ninety degrees Fahrenheit by day: hot and relaxing.
4. WORLD'S BEST OFF-SHORE SNORKELING
5. WORLD'S BEST SINGING VOICES
With a list that strong, who cares about HONORABLE MENTION?
The Top 5 Worst Things About Samoa! awaits those readers who haven't already left this story to go buy their flight, or swim, to Samoa:
1. THE FACT THAT I DIDN'T GO OUT AT NIGHT -
A Peace Corps volunteer named Chris told me that, in Samoan clubs, guys get grabbed/groped by the girls. Oh, my. There's so much to learn in foreign nightclubs. It will always be a big regret of mine that I didn't see how the Samoans party.
2. PEACE CORPS AND MISSIONARIES -
In my humble and 100% absolutely correct opinion (hee hee), the Western world doesn't have anything on Samoa.
With a population of 162,000, Samoa must be one of the countries with the largest Peace Corps presence. This all makes me leery. Perhaps the Peace Corps and the Christian missionaries mean well, but I think it's egotistical of them to think Samoa needs anything they're offering. Paradise doesn't need Western improvement, and don't impose your belief in a heaven-to-come on people who live heaven NOW.
3. HURRICANES -
Hurricanes sometimes cause devastating damage.
4. NO ACCESS TO TRAVEL -
Most Samoans can't afford to travel far.
5. UNINTERESTING CONVERSATION -
I was never able to relate well with the locals. Often, it seemed like they only asked the same three questions over and over. Kids followed me through villages and annoyed me, repeating, "When are you leaving?" Infrequently, they asked for money.
I now realize this could've been because English was only the country's "official" language, but not its native tongue. Probably, if I had learned Samoan, we'd have had more revealing chats.
HM orates that the GAS EXHAUST, HONKING IN APIA are bad, and PARADISE IS BORING. I slept most nights in tiny beach fales or tiny rooms in hostels, paying no more than $8 a night. When the days got dark, at six p.m., I mostly just sat around thinking about missing home. Funny, huh? There's not much to do in paradise.
While hitchhiking, I was often thrown, along with others, into the backs of Samoans' pick-up trucks. These are great places to get an outlook on the world from. At times, the scenery was breathtaking. For example:
Our truck climbed from the low coast to the mountainous center of the island. I looked back, downward, past the falling valleys of coconut palms beneath ocean-fresh air so heavey you could ride it down to the beach below. The multi-colored ocean gave root to a sky-huge rainbow that landed somewhere in the rainforest.