Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Working our way around the island
In Samoa, the Friday preceeding and the Monday following Easter weekend are holidays. So a four day weekend was afoot. Bryan and I haven't been to the village for a while, and his grandfather was having his 90th birthday celebration on Saturday. So the plan was to leave for Falevao on Friday. We were going to stay for the party on Saturday and possibly church on Sunday. Leaving Sunday afternoon we were going to bike around the island (sleeping at beach fales) and try to make it back by Tuesday night. Heather's planning to come in July, and I was going to take her around the island by bike. This was going to give me the opportunity to see how hard it would be... I don't think Heather and I are going to make the bike trip when she gets here.
Fa'alavelave n. Anything which interferes with normal life and calles for special activity (N.B. A wide range of events from a weeding to a canoe lost at sea is covered by this concept) Typically birthdays are not generally celebrated here, but exceptions are made for birthdays which mark events in ones life (think 16th and 21st birthdays in the states). Evidently, 90th birthdays are such events. Bryan's grandfather, Tafili, is one of the most respected people in the village --- he's an orator, or talking chief. One of the primary roles of the orators, as best as I can surmise, is to act as negotiators for the village high chiefs when dealing with people outside the village (other villages, government officials, the Peace Corps, etc.). Typically, in terms of status, orators lie just below the high chief of the village. In some ways I believe Tafili may supersede the high chief of the village based on the experience which comes with someone of his age. Since I do not live with him, my picture of Tafili is informed by the respect my family has for him and my limited interactions. He seems like a very pious and respectful person who can really cut a rug. So one of the most respected people in the village was having a 90th birthday --- this is a huge event. It's common for Samoans who work in New Zealand and the US and send money home; these remittances are one of the largest sources of income here. For big events like this, the extended family will fly in: I know there were groups from New Zealand and the U.S., and I wouldn't be surprised if there was also an Austrailian contengent. This many people in the house and the preperations for the fiafia (party) were really putting a strain on the resources of the family. There were 40 people staying in the fales and a group staying in Apia. Bryan's host father, Nasari, was looking very tired. Given the over crowding it was decided that Bryan would stay with my family while we were in the village. I left Bryan at his home in the middle of the village around five Friday evening, and I headed to my family who live on the edge of the village. I came upon my mother pushing my grandmother in a wheelchair. I stopped and walked with them back to the fale --- it's like I never left. I went into the fale, stripped off my clothes, and took a shower. I've grown accustomed to bathing without hot water, and cold showers feel particularly nice after a bike ride. We chatted for a while, I had dinner, and after a while I decided it was bed time. I was reading in bed when Bryan arrived. They brought him and his bike in a car because it wasn't safe for him to ride in the dark. It's a dark 1/2 mile and the host families are all very protective of the palagis that stay with them. The next morning we woke a little after sunrise. I headed for the bathroom and a shower. By comparision to Bryan, I'm a clean freak. I'm one sweaty, greasy, white guy, and I will take any opportunity to remove the current layer of slime from my body. Bryan took pictures while I showered, and this provided much entertainment for my family.
Bryan and I put on our formal attire: button up shirt and ia faitoga's. The fabric most clothing is made from here is synthetic. I assume one major reason for polyesters and such is that it resists the urge to attract and cohabitate with mold. Another benefit is that synthetics also tend to last longer. Nothing is perfect, and synthetic fabrics in a tropical environtment are no exception. Bryan's family made a really nice looking shirt for him out of this orange fabric --- firemen could have also used it as an insulator. By the end of the day it had combined with enough of Bryan's sweat to have probably doubled in mass. We arrived early for the party to check out the preparations. The Samoan fale (the house with no walls) had been setup with tables and chairs. To accommodate other visitors, Tafili envited the whole village, a tent had been erected and chairs setup. The houses of the family were swarming with the extended family from overseas. A group from New Zealand had all their clothes made from matching fabric. Bryan and I sat with Nasari who still looked a little worn. He began to enumerate all that was going into the fiafia; how many pigs were cooked, the cows being slaugtered, the mealofa or gifts being prepared for each family in the village, etc. While we were talking to Nasari, a truck arrived, and some soles came and began to unload the food. Tafilis extended families in the village had fired up their umus early in the morning and began cooking. As the morning moved on, several trucks arrived and a pile of pigs on a bed of banana leaves slowly built up. I would estimate that there were about eight to ten entire pigs lying there at one point. Bryan and I went to talk to the people doing the cooking and I wondered around to find the people slaughtering the cows. Evidentally they were doing this down by the river. I caught them just as they were carrying the meat back.
Shortly after that, the party was beginning. We were given seats at the tables in the open fale, a very respectful gesture. I took the seat closest to the outside so I could venture out and take pictures. Things started with a prayer, a short speech, and shortly there after the singing and dancing began. Different memebrs of the extended family were doing singing and dancing routines. In the beginning, Tafili was even putting his thing down.
While the fiafia was rocking, the taulealea (untitled men) were busy working in the back. Food preparations were well underway, and the gifts for the different families in the village were being prepared. These are the the woven baskets with portions of meat (the cooked pigs and slaughtered cows), corned beef, canned herring, etc. As a former gradstudent, I understand appreciate the currency of food.
Toward the end of the performances the food was served. Each person at the table was given a huge platter of food --- more food than I could possibly eat. I've eaten at several Samoan homes at this point, and each time I'm given large amounts of food. Before any food can be finished, more is placed in front of me. It's not just food either. I've been with Bryan at occasions where alcohol is imbibed, and it is common to hand him a second beer with a quarter remaining of the current beer. I've since learned to eat what I like, get good and full, and tell my hosts that I'm done. I always try to at least sample everything --- I never knew it until coming here, but beef liver is really good.
During the meal, gifts were given to honored guests. These included the Prime Minister, and two church officials (the local pastor and one of his superiors). Several fine mats, shown below, were presented to each guest. The baskets shown below were presented along with money to each family in the village. The gift giving process here is very public, with an individual designated to stand outside the fale and shout what is being given. I stood watching as the family members carry out from the falepalagi: case of canned fish, fine mat, fine mat, etc.; it is awe inspiring in a way.
And just like that, it's over. To me this was a very unique experience we were allowed to participate in. That is one of the more interesting aspects of the culture here. The people seem to genuinely want people to understand and experience their way of life. I took my platter of food --- I really couldn't eat the whole thing --- to Toa'fa. She in turn gave it to an aunt who was on her way to Apia. There is a certain fluidity here of possessions. Property is very temporal and communal, but the communal aspect is spread across several levels: immediate family, extended family, the village, etc. Josh came with us to Falevao for Easter. Since his last visit, Josh's sister in the village had a child. Because Josh is such a great rolemodel they decided to name the baby after him. I just hop it doenst have Josh's prolific skin problems. This is a picture of Toa'fa with Josh's namesake: Toa'fa, Bryan and I then walked to our fale at the other end of the village. When we arrived, I stripped down and headed for the shower. I was happy to put on a lavalava and a cotton tshirt. I spent the rest of the day hanging out with the family and reading. I went with my hostfather out of the village where he scaled a coconut tree and pulled down some niu for us. He tried to teach me how to husk one. It's something that will come with practice I'm sure. I still need to learn how to climb the trees. We came home and had a realaxing time that evening. Bryan, who had gone back to spend some time with his family, returned around eight. We all sat around and chatted for a while and then hit the sack.
We decided that we would leave early the next morning to ride around the island. We had some friends staying at Lalomanu, and we were planning on spending Sunday lunchtime at the beach. Bryan and I got up just after sunrise on Sunday. We had some breakfast and my family filled up our water bottles with niu juice. They were also nice enough to give us a couple niu to take with us. My family lives at the base of a largish hill which leads to Le Mafa Pass. I generally prefer to start by going up hill. In my mind, I think that I'm putting the worst of it, or a good chunk of some bad stuff, behind me. This wasn't too bad, both of us were fresh, hydrated, and well fed. I think it took us about 30-35 minutes to climb that part. Since it was early, the mountain was shielding the sun for us. This is the valley area where Falevao is located:
Mount Poutavai is south of the village
And the village is located at the base of mount Fao
After we hit the top of the pass I stopped for a bit to get some water, but more importantly to put on some sun screen. We started downhill for a while. This part always kind of freaks me out. We must be going close to 30mph, and things like pigs and dogs randomly walk across the street. I'm always a little paranoid a big sow is going to come wondering along with five or six piglets trailing behind. As a result, I tend to ride my breaks a little bit more than I should. We came to a bit of a valley. The countryside was wide open for quite a while. Off to the left we saw something that resembeled a dam, but I just cannot imagine a dam being built up here in the hills for anything. It was kind of far off, so it would have to be investigated another time. It was at this point that we came across the second hill. I've ridden this part of the trip a couple times by car, and I remember there being a hill. What I didn't remember was it being so long. Somewhere in the middle of the hill I spotted a piece of shade. I was getting a little thursty, so I decided to take advantage of the sunless area on an otherwise exposed road. This gave me the opportunities to get the following action shots of Bryan as he switchbacked up the road:
We made it to the top eventually. Bryan, being the dedicated smoker that he is, lit one up in victory as we got to the top. We sat there for a bit and started on our way once more. We got to the next stretch of downhills when I noticed the lake. The last time I came through here was at the beginning of the year. This was before the month of continuous rain. At that time the lake was bleak and dried up. Now it was lush and full of life. I tried to take it in and focus on the road at the same time. A little further and we rode into Lalomanu.
We arrived around eleven and found a few of the volunteers there. I don't think either of us were worn too bad, but I didn't want to be out in the sun around noon --- it sucks the life out of me during this period of the day. I took the opportunity to get a couple liters of water --- remember when you see something you want here you should buy it then. I was staring to get hungery so Bryan, Nella, and I took off to get something to eat. This is more of a tourist spot so we paid quite a bit for a fishburger and chips. We returned to the beach afterwards and I laid down and took a nap in the shade until it was time for us to head out. I guess we left there around two. I should mention now that our plan for the day was pretty ambitious. Bryan essentially wanted to make it to the base of the westernmost cross island road. We still had a long way to go on what is some very hilly roads. Since about a mile before Lalomanu, we had made it back to the coast. Riding along the coast is amazing; I can stare into the sea for hours --- as long as I listen cars and keep part of an eye out for dogs. We rode along rolling hills that followed the coast for about an hour or so. Somewhere along the way, the road turned inland as we started to climb steadily uphill. It was at this point that I noticed my sweat was starting to smell like ammonia (Aside: Brandon was the first person to ever introduce me to the idea that sweat could have an appreciable ammonia concentration). After riding up a steady incline, we came to a fork in the road. We knew that we would have to take a left somewhere, the question was "was this the left?" When depending on a bicycle as a form of transportation, I've found it is better to ask sooner rather than later if a turn is correct. Our intention was to flag down a car and ask a local if we were going in the correct direction. The first person we stopped was a small van with three asian gentlemen. According to them, Apia was in the direction from which we came. This would have been correct if only we were willing to go around the entire planet. Bryan and I agreed that we should find a better source of information. We were not to be let down. Shortly, Bryan flagged down a family and got directions that were at least plasuable. With confirmation we took the road which led us around the Sopoaga Falls. This was more rolling hills which led to a steady increase in elevation. The road became looked more and more unkept as we continued. It was also starting to get late. We made it through a few more villages and we entered the wilderness preserve. Along the side of the road, we found a couple fale's under construction. This was a convenient place to stop and have a snack. The last couple hills had been giving my legs a hard time. I was pretty sure that I was almost out of salt. I began to look for the rehydration salts and electrolyte pills from my medical kit. After some rummaging, I came to the realization that I had left them on the table back in Apia. Comparing our location on the map to the position of the sun in the sky, we realized that we wouldn't be making it as far that day as we had hoped. Looking at the map, it appeard the closet set of beach fales was a surf resort. The whole time there was a little voice in the back of my head saying things like "what if the fales are fully?". After departing from the rest area, we pushed on through the wilderness reserve. Shortly after that we hit the tee intersection of the cross island road nearest to our house. The sunset was beautiful --- purple streaming up from the horizon. By congtrast, we found the turn off for the surf resort in pitch black --- the street lights here are weak and few. We took our bikes down the dirt road which spilled out near the ocean. The entire time I was hoping that I wouldn't hit a patch of sand that would send me into the dirt. While I waited with the bikes, Bryan came out and informed me that there were no fales free. Humm, well we had a few options. We could always get a cab back to Apia. It wasn't the preferred option, but it was there none the less. My preferred option was to find a Samoan family who would let us stay with them. In the morning, we could offer a mealofa (gift) equal to the 50 tala each we were going to give the surf result. I thought it would work out well for both us and the family. Plus I thought it would be an interesting experience. Bryan had a thought. The next resort over was Coconuts a fairly upscale place. with a minimum rate of 200USD per night, it was seriously out of our price range. Bryan has had some experience working in the hotel business, and he suggested that we basically go to Coconuts, explain that we were pretty hard up, and see if the manager could cut us some slack. Honestly, I had my doubts. Hell, at this point, I smelled like I had been sprayed by a cat in heat. We walked up to the resort and asked the Samoans working there if we could speak to the manager. Eventually, a man named Ned came out to talk to us. Being out of my element, I let Bryan do most of the talking as he relayed our situation to Ned. Ned told us that there was a room normally used by staff that they rent out for 60USD (~165 tala) a night, and he would see if it was clean. Ned returned to tell us that it was clean and that he would give it to us for 120 tala. Since we were going to spend 50 each at the surf resort, this was a great deal. We would have air conditioning and hot water --- I haven't had a hot shower in months, since training. This was really the best thing that could have happened: we had a place to stay that was affordable, and Ned was filling a room that would have been empty otherwise. Regardless, he did us a huge favor. We each took showers and put on some clean clothes. It felt strange (think golden) to take a warm shower after all this time. After bathing, we decided to get some food. The resturat was pretty damn expensive by my volunteer standards. We spent another 50 tala each on some spaghetti and an appitizer. The dining room was very nice. The main structure seemd to be the large laqured logs. The rest of the decore was made from local materials. After dinner, I was feeling a little thursty and beat. We returned to the room were I made some peanut butter sandwiches with crackers. I continued to drink water as I read the Life of Pi. Bryan had already passed out when I started to drift away. I woke the next morning as the sun was coming up. My nose was a little stopped up --- this happens whenever I sleep in air conditioning. I decided to take another shower, might as well make the best of it. For breakfast, I had some more crackers and I drank some more water. With the rest of our stuff packed into the dry bag, we were ready to leave. While we waited to pay, I took a look around --- it was dark the night before. This was a really nice place. To advertise for Coconuts (jmh find link) a little bit, these are the over the water fales:
We took off around 7.30am. I was feeling very refreshed, though my arse was a little sore. Bryan said that his legs were pretty sore and he wanted to take it easy. Given my larger mass and the extra weight I was carrying on my rack, I need go down hills rather quickly. This allows me to conserve my momentum and make it as far up the next hill as possible. We decided to take the western most cross island road because I still didn't know the way to connect to the road that more or less circumscribes the island. We made it to the falealoa I stopped at the last time I passed through this part of the island by around 11.30. We stopped here to pick up some food and water and to wait out the noon sun. I spent most of the time reading under a tree as the heat of the day passed by.
Already smelling of ammonia, I left the tree around 1.30. This part was a continuous uphill. We would stop every 1/4 to 1/2 mile or so, drink some water, and push on. We hit the apex about an hour later. It was refreshing and encouraging to see the ocean. What took us a little over an hour to climb, went by in less than 10 minutes. We came out at the bottom of the cross island road and took a right turn for Apia. At this point, combined with the ride from the previous day, Bryans legs were getting pretty weak. I was feeling pretty good, but my back was starting to hurt. I would loosen my messenger bag and let it rest on the drybag which was attached to the rack. As the day went on, we started stopping more frequently. When we made it to Holly's house in Faleula, Bryans legs just quit. I stayed with him for a while, but he eventually decided that it would be better to take a cab. At that point, I gave him the dry bag and pushed pretty hard for home --- my main problems being my back and my arse. I made it home in about 40 minutes and climbed into the shower. It was a great feeling. When Bryan got back we decided what we would have on our pizzas. I called in the order and took a cab into town and picked up dinner. The hungrier you are the better it tastes...
I still need to find the route past Apolima, but that will have to wait for another day.