American Samoa and Western Samoa
Approaching a small island in the mid-Pacific, it is a bit of a relief to see land after flying above such a vast expanse of water. On landing, my taxi driver tried to rip me off pretending to misunderstand my directions and mumbling responses, but eventually we reached the cheap motel that I had scoped out. It was full. I ended up staying in an extra room at the home of Chief Napoleone A. Tuiteleleapaga.
The imposing gentleman sat comfortably before a large TV, fanning himself and slapping himself under the armpits. His card listed his various titles and interests: Grand Knight, International Mark Twain Society, Private Detective, Musician…member of the Samoan Church Unification Committee, Sierra Club and more.
On my first morning in this remote spot, I headed for the forest. Following a track below the ridgeline, I ended up on the far side of the island and dropped down into a valley. The canopy enclosed the moist space that I had all to myself until I heard the gun shots. Not wanting to be mistaken for a wild boar, I did my best to slip through the jungle following a stream towards the ocean. I ran into the hunters anyway. They were taking pot shots at birds. White seabirds flew overhead, their long 2’ tail feathers making undulating brush strokes across the sky. Enormous fruit bats flapped to their roost. My companions were on the hunt for the huge South Pacific crab that climbs trees in search of coconuts, which they break with their claws. Their meat was supposed to be incredible. I earned a jungle boy merit badge by learning to weave a palm leaf basket which they would use to carry back their haul of succulent critters.
Heading back along the ridge with the guys, they pointed out Western Samoa, its outline broken by a canopy of palm leaves.
My stay was brief since my destination was Western Samoa and Sava’ii. I spent my first night in Western Samoa at a dive called the Casino that was on its last legs and about to be torn down. The bar turned out to have been the local afternoon drinking hole for locals and Peace Corps volunteers. Over beer the PC guys gave me advice and some contacts on Sava’ii. As their story goes, you can tell how long a PC volunteer has been in Samoa by the reactions to a fly in their beer glass. If he/she asks for a new glass of beer, they have on been on Samoa for a couple of weeks. If they pick the fly out of their glass and drink the beer, they have been in country for at least 6 months. And if they pick up their glass and drink the beer, fly and all, they have been around for at least a year.
That night I thought I would walk around town. I did not get far before encountering two gangs doing some ritualized stand-off with rocks in hand on my side of the street. I casually slipped across the street and headed right on back to the safety of the hotel bar.
My flight to Savai’i was canceled since all planes were undergoing repairs. An airline worker invited me to spend the night with his family where cultural immersion began. His sister’s home was a “fale” house with a grass thatched roof. I was given a lava-lava to wear. The colorful fabric wrapped around your waist definitely beats wearing pants in the humidity.
I was instructed in dining cross-legged on mats, eating with my fingers. Flies were buzzing during the meal as a young boy fanned my food. Getting this much attention while eating was a bit disconcerting, so I tried to reduce my intake, and the kid could rest his arm.
Once on Savai’i, I had extra time waiting for a bus. Two boys were fascinated by the “palagi” (white) and every move I made, so I used the time to construct a 5” outrigger with a few sticks and some grass to wrap them together. I advised them not to take it on the high seas. This activity then attracted 15 more kids who came to either admire…or maybe they were deriding my handiwork.
There was an Oregon based lumber company in one village, and my plan was to visit this American compound. But three local girls walked on by, asked what I was up to and invited me to their home. The three lived with family in a beach village next to a bay enclosed by a reef. How could I refuse the offer. Escorted along the beach, they let me push an outrigger out into the bay and paddle. They claimed that I looked like a fisherman, but by their giggling I may have not reached that status in their eyes. Later on a walk (in my lava-lava) down mainstreet, as we carried our bottles of orange drink, Apaula insisted that I not sip from the bottle since these were the same bottles used for beer. Others might think we were boozing it up together. With the guys watching us, I figured it was best to follow her direction. Dinner was fresh fish from the bay, which did offer a change of pace since most Samoans seemed to rely heavily on canned fish.
In the evening, I was given the only bed in the hut. Apaula tucked the mosquito netting in around my bed once I was under the sheets…and then returned to the family compound. I was having a Margaret Mead moment, wondering about Apaula’s expectations and intentions. She seemed to be acting as a sixteen-year-old in search of a husband. From my perspective, she was underage and, though very kind, not eligible for any relationship. Though hesitant, I agreed to stay another night.
Her father left at 4 a.m. to fish. At dawn, her mother, after cooking for the family with help from the children, started weaving mats as wind breaks. Younger kids went off to school. Between rain squalls, Apaula did my laundry. This was getting a bit too domestic. Others might think I was living the Gauguin dream, but the reality of unmet expectations was dampening my enthusiasm. Time to move on after many thanks and profound apologies for any cultural snafus.