The Mark of the Jandal

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Land of Bye Bye

Prophecy: a pilgrimage will be made about the largest island of Savai'i.

My idea of a vacation typically involves moving my rather robust rear end around the edges of the country on a piece of aluminum and two tiers. As I spend more time in and around the Apia area, I really start to get restless. I am fortunate that Candice, a fellow volunteer from my training group, also has a taste for such silliness. So to quell this restlessness, I planned a trip with her to bike around Savai'i. The plan was to leave on the 15th of December and tool about in Savai'i, staying with other volunteers and corrupting the fine peoples in the far reaches. It's just our luck that such reaches are paved and sport stores which stock large quantities of water, salty snack food, and canned tuna. Of course the following sounds much more adventurous if one pictures a deserted island covered with foliage and bicycles equipped brush clearing devices. Some time between the initial planning of the trip and the time we actually left, others thought such a bike trip sounded like a good idea. I did my best to discourage them: I described the extreme dehydration, the occasional necessity of cannibalism, and the ritual sacrifice of small children along the way to the god of firm tires and overcast skys (strangely enough this duty is delegated to the same god). In the end three others would not be abated. Candice and I were joined by Jordan, Stephanie, and Jame all from group 76. Jame is pronounced like 'Jamie' except in New York City the socialists banned the letter 'i' in names hoping to reduce individualism and encourage collectivism.

On the 15th, group 76 was celebrating the birth of one of it's members, Vik, in his village Sale'auala on Savai'i. The goal was to ride from Apia to the wharf, take the ferry to Salealoga, bike up to Viks village, and enjoy some hot dogs. Well, I was focused on the hot dogs but others may have focused more on other carbon based consumables. The Upolu side of this leg is a little over 20 miles and the Savai'i portion is around 30. If one averages about 10 miles per hour, not an unreasonable number given much of the land is flat-ish, that's only five hours with a firm piece of plastic covered in faux leather crammed in ones nether-regions. Leaving at 7.30 we could be at the wharf in time to catch the 10am ferry, arrive at Savaii around 11.30 and make it to Viks around three. Well that was a plan, not 'the' plan because definite articles are to be used sparingly when planning more or less anything.

For instance there is a subset of folks who feel that leaving sharp pieces of cable in the streets of Apia to be a good idea. So we started with a flat tire about 1/4 of a mile from the Peace Corps office. This also happened to be across the street from a couple of bars and attracted the attention of a drunken individual whose slurred Samoan was especially difficult for me to understand. I balanced my time between changing the tire and intercepting his touchy feely intentions. Ten or fifteen minutes later we were back on the road and we could probably still make the ferry if we didn't stop.

The ride from Apia to the wharf is really pleasant. It runs along the coast and any changes in elevation are modest. I was expecting a relatively benign trip to the wharf. About 2/3's of the way there Jame says she needs to stop for some water. We stop, drink a bit and she says she needs to sit down. At that point she faints, though she contends she didn't faint because she never hit the ground -- next time I'll forego catching her to make it official. At this point my mind shifted from catching the 10 o-clock ferry to wondering if we should call the trip off. See, this was supposed to be the easy part, and taxi vans are easily to come by.

We sat for a while under a tree in someones front yard filling her with rehydration salts, food, and other pleasantries. She said she wanted to keep on going, so I gave her my water bladder to carry in her backpack and we trudged on. I rode in the back to keep an eye on her, and I just kept imagining her collapsing while riding. I know, I'm always called the pessimist, but really I was being an optimist. If she passed out and was run over by a car, we could use her bike for parts. Otherwise we arrive with no problems: Either way I win!

Sadly enough the rest of the trip to the wharf was uneventful. We got there in plenty of time to eat, catch the noon ferry, and get a shot of a more or less typical Samoan bicycle. Candice used her feminine wiles to convince a gentlemen with an empty truck to let us put our bikes on the back which saved us 5ST per bike. I laid down on the floor of the ferry and slept (completely socially acceptable here) most of the way there.

The wharf on Savai'i is located in Salealoga. The Peace Corps maintains a small office space across the street from the wharf. We were picking up Jordan, who made the 10am ferry, before we continued on to Viks place. When we arrived there were a few volunteers there who were cavorting about and undoubtably up to no good. It turns out a few of the guys from the new group who swore in a week or so prior cannot move into their sites until January 15th. Their organizations have put them up in a beach fale for the time being, and they were hanging out at the office where Internet access flows as freely as it can through a modem.

We ambled along towards to Viks place stopping as necessary for breaks. As we ride around the country the large roads all run through different villages. If one grew up in Arkansas or any other place where there are rural areas, and by rural I mean lacking conventional plumbing, you might appreciate the spectacle of having a bunch of non-native looking people passing in front of the house. People here are friendly, and will try to get your attention as you pass through. A common, and quite effective, method of obtaining someones attention here is to make kissing sounds. Also, it's also common to say 'fa' (the Samoan word for 'bye') as you meet someone in passing. So we pass through villages we get lots of kissing noises (from adults) and lots of 'bye bye' (from the kids). Based on anecdotal experience, the amount of 'bye bye' and kissing sounds seems more frequent on Savai'i than on Upolu. It also seems to drive some volunteers kind of crazy. I just look at it from the perspective of people who live in a small community who think "hey a white dude on a bike I'll make a kissing sound to say "what's up"" -- more or less a friendly greeting. So when we would stop for our breaks, I'd try my hand at small talk, and a lot of the people here really enjoy having their picture taken. (It's also probably useful to mention that children are sometimes told that white people will eat them.)

We rolled up at Viks, I believe, around five. At this point my arse is a little sore and I'm giving off a pungent ripe smell. The rest of group 76 is already there, and seem somewhat relieved that we made it. His house is really nice. I was a little confused by the flagpole in the front until Vik told me half of his house is going to be the first pulenu'u (village mayor) office in the country. I made a point of telling his host father/pulenu'u how nice the place was. I eventually made my way to the shower where I also washed my clothes. I then had hot dogs, baked beans, and other tasty goodness.

I think the days riding curtailed any party intentions my fellow riders may have had. I don't think they even realize it now that they rode close to 50 miles in one day which I think was quite an accomplishment. Eventually they spent most of their time laying around while Candice gave out back massages.

The following morning Neocon John (oh to be a neoconservative in the Peace Corps), inspired by the back rubs from the previous night, asked if someone would walk on his back. I was happy to oblige him.

It was decided that a break was needed and Manase, a touristy village with beach fale's for rent was just around the corner. I had made arrangements for us to spend that night with another volunteer named Maka. His family in the states owns a meat farm in upstate New York. Since he's from the rural part of the state I don't normally refer to him as a Yankee though he's probably close enough to be mistaken for Canadian. During training we are sent off for a "Volunteer Visit" where we spend a few days with a current volunteer. I spent my visit with Maka and his Samoan family. I wasn't eager to spend the 50ST on a beach fale, and I kind of wanted to hang out with Maka. So I left the ladies at the beach fales and pushed on.

I rode along the coast for a while before I headed into the mountains and eventually the road passed across a lava field made in the early 1900's after what I speculate was an unsatisfying sacrifice of some Tongans. While the first day was nice and overcast, this day was decidedly not so. I could always see storm clouds and eventually I did catch up to them, but most of this leg was bright and sunny. The benefit of this was a very picturesque ride.

Maka lives in Papa Sataua which lies above the village of Sataua on a substantial hill. I tend to stop a lot and take pictures, and I was in the process of doing this when a boy walked up and asked me where I was going. I thought to myself this is my opportunity, I could get this kid to push me up the hill. I started telling him how strong he was and asked him if he could push me up the hill. Another boy who spoke English helped me convey the message I was trying to get across. Of course I was only joking with him, but I believe he was committed to pushing me up the hill toward the end of the conversation.

At the top of the hill across the street from the road leading to Makas place is a little fale folks sit under when waiting for buses. As I approached I noticed that there were about five young men sitting around drinking. They began to take notice of me, and their first question was something to the effect of "where are the four girls?". It seems Maka had told his family and it didn't take long for the word to get out that four Peace Corps girls were coming... oh yeah and some guy. Needless to say, they were a little sad to see only me.

I arrived at Makas a little tired. After taking a shower he made some coffee and appetizers. We hung out and talked for a bit, and eventually his brother Malo showed up. The pictures below don't really do justice to his hands. Years of husking coconuts coupled with superior genetics have given him some huge hands. Malo showed up with a bottle of vodka in hand. The better part of the bottle had already been consumed with his friends, and when they passed out he snuck off with the remainder. He too was expecting some ladies. He'd already become smitten with Peta, Jordans Samoans name, even though he had never met her.

Not to be dissuaded and adapting to new conditions, Malo decided that he and Maka should share the rest of the fagu malosi (fagu=bottle, malosi=strong). As dinner rolled around, Malo decided we should eat at Makas place instead of the fale with the rest of the family, and he brought dinner out to us. It was typical Samoan food: taro, a couple different soups, and cocoa. His family tends to cook good food. As the night wore on, the strong bottle began to get the better of Malo, and he and Maka began to dance in a sitting position which I read somewhere is common among Polynesian folks.

The following day was pretty laid back. The others arrived in the afternoon to little fanfare. Maka and I rode to the bottom of the hill to provide moral support and carry any heavy stuff up the hill for them. The young men who were there waiting for me lost interest in the span of a day and were no longer there. Everyone was pretty funky so baths were in order. We had dinner with Makas family that evening and made them happy by eating large quantities of food. The best way to be a good guest here is to have seconds or thirds at meals. We stayed up late that night and slept in a bit.

Our next destination was the beach fales at Satuiatua where we were going to stay the night, but we were going to go a little out of the way and spend lunchtime at Falealupo. Falealupo is the village on the western most chunk of Samoa and it also has the distinction of being the last part of land on this side of the international date line. So many colorfully refer to sunset there as the last sunset on earth. This is where many of us are planning on spending New Years Eve, and Maka wanted to confirm reservations with the proprietor of the beach fales so he accompanied us. We spent lunch time at the fales allowing the hottest part of the day to pass us by.

One of the more interesting sights around Falealupo is the Catholic Church below. It was blown asunder, as the saying goes, along with the village around it by cyclone Ofa in 1990. After the heavy smiting the village was moved inland, but some of the more permanent structures like foundations and this church still survive.

Across the street from the church is a grave which is uncharacteristically open (as can be seen behind Candice). Inside are the remains of several people who died long enough ago such that only their bones remain. I'm not sure why this is, but I do know that Samoans look at graves a little differently than most folks back home do. Many families have graves in their front yard for highly respected members of the family. It's also common for Samoans to hang out and sleep on graves or even to use them to dry their laundry.

After leaving Falealupo, Maka returned to his village and we tooled along to the village of Satuiatua where we were planing on staying at beach fales for the evening. It was overcast and we were rained on a bit, but it was more or less uneventful. Since we didn't call ahead, all that was available for dinner was fish and chips but that didn't matter since I knew this place would have cereal for breakfast. I know it sounds strange but I never really have cereal here, and I really like the stuff. It's not lack of availability, but my own personal lack of self control -- an open box in the morning will probably be empty the next day. The cereal offerings are New Zealand/Australian variants of the standard stuff you'd get back in the States but the names are much better. Really, Frosted Miniwheats is so banal. Now Frosted Minispooners, that's a name that just rolls off your tongue.

We were planning on staying the night with a married couple, Jan and Ray, who also came with group 76. Between Satuiatua and their village is the village of Taga which is know for its blow holes. These are channels in the rocks created by cooling lava which connect breaking waves to the surface. As the waves crash into the shore the energy pushes water into these channels and forces it out the other end. Jan biked there and met us so we could all do the touristy thing together. We were charged 5ST to get in and then when we got to the blowholes a gentleman named Tofa tried to charge us 1ST per bike to "park" them. After we declined and told him we'd "park" the bikes on the road, he relented.

Dead crabs littered the beach, and I speculate they had the trip of their lives through the holes which were quite loud and impressive. After some substantial gawking we went to a fale along side the road for lunch and a nap.

The next destination was Jans place in Vaiala. It was a couple hours and a flat tire away. We stopped a few times for water and I speculate to alleviate the pressure created by the bike seats.

Jan and Ray have a nice place. Across the street is a pool where we bathed shortly after arriving. Candice and I went to the store to pick up some food so we could have French toast, or Freedom toast if one prefers, for dinner. Ray has been experimenting with the normal Samoan fare and he made some tasty meat balls with corned beef and ground taro. I must admit that I'd never eaten corned beef before coming here. My host family preferred to eat it straight out of the can which produced a gelatinous cylinder like a huge can of cat food. Being psychologically challenged by the texture, I never actually ate it until they snuck it in by putting it inside of a toasted sandwich which was actually pretty good. Though sometimes I stare into the corned beef and try to read the future like tea leaves.

Jan and Ray are interesting folks. They joined the Peace Corps 20 years ago shortly after getting married and served in Morocco. I suppose they enjoyed that experience because after their kids grew up they joined again. I really look forward to talking to these folks in the future.

That night we slept in the open fale surrounded by mosquito coils, or as I like to call them "Samoan incense", and took our leave the next morning after a satisfying breakfast of scrambled eggs and hot dogs. It was about 45 minutes to the wharf.

On Upolu, Jame and Stephanie decided the bus was better to take back to Apia. Candice, Jordan and I biked back and we made it home by around two in the afternoon. I went home to clean myself up. After almost a week of hand washing clothing and drying them on the back of my bike while we rode, I had developed a pungent, yet self assuring, smell. I also got a bit of sun and cultivated what I like to refer to as the "used car salesman tan" which qualifies me for membership in the "Rick Delkemp Fan Club".

And to provide a little contrast:

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