Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Six: Circling Savai’I and Completing the South Pacific Sojourn

The sixth and final installment of my short, but amazing trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, and Samoa.  I finally squeezed in some sightseeing in Samoa in spite of my continued transport challenges.  All part of the journey.  

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s house at Vallima

My first true morning in Samoa, I needed to confirm my ticket back to Pago Pago.  This was always a risk, as I had only four days in Samoa (including my arrival day) and a plane to catch back to Honolulu from Pago Pago.  But I thought much of my trip thus far had been relatively “safe” and what was travel without a little risk?  Pale, the Polynesian Airlines guru, worked his wonders.  He booked me on a Polynesian Airlines flight at 7 PM on Wednesday arriving in Pago Pago before 8 PM, giving me a comfortable margin to check-in for the 10:30 PM Aloha Airlines flight back to Hawaii.  The flight was even departing from Faleolo Airport, the large international airport on the Western end of the main island of Upolo, rather than the small airport just minutes from Apia called Fagali’i.  This would make it possible for me to go over to the island of Savai’i and return by boat and encounter less hassle to go to the airport, as Faleolo is just a few minutes down the road from the ferry port.  I should have realized I was taking far too much for granted – but more on that later.

In the afternoon of my second day I headed to the home of Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous Scottish author of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  Incredibly, due to his often-poor health and his doctor’s advice to seek other climes, he and his family left Scotland in 1887, traveled to America, and then onward the following year for many adventures in the South Pacific, eventually buying land and building a home in Samoa.  Ultimately, his mother, wife Fanny, stepchildren Lloyd and Belle, and Belle’s son’s Austin too settled in Samoa.  Stevenson was popular among the Samoans and when he died there some four years later he was accorded rites fitting someone of great stature and is buried not far from his home.  I could not help but think of the incredible travels Stevenson and his family, and other literati of the period like Melville and Twain, undertook.  I did not have the easiest time getting to Samoa, but it was certainly easier than their trips would have been.  I became quite entangled in these thoughts while enjoying the Stevenson house and photographs on display.  I think I was most impressed by Robert’s dourly dressed mother making the long journey.

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View of Apia Harbor on my flight to Savai’i

Again, in writing it appears I did very little, but I felt the day quite full and pleasant.  I had lovely meals in waterfront restaurants, wrote some email, and arranged my tickets back to Pago Pago and onwards to Savai’i.  I also arranged for my bag to take a tour of Upolo Island and meet me at the ferry port to go to the airport, as I was notified my six-seater plane to Savai’i would take only five kilos.  At first the thought of abandoning much of my belongings for a day and a half threw me, and then I felt oddly liberated to have only the small pack with me.  In fact, I found I had no need for anything I left behind.

Early in the morning of the third day, I boarded the small jet for the 20-minute flight to Savai’i.  I checked in at 6:30 for the 7 AM flight.  About five minutes before 7 an airline official approached me and asked if I was going to Savai’i.  When I said yes, he told me it was time to board.  He stepped over to an open door and then proceeded to take my boarding pass.  It turned out I was the only passenger.  Yes, it was just myself and the pilot on this flight.  And my five kilos of luggage.

The view was beautiful; I cannot begin to describe it.  Like the other islands of the Pacific, Samoa is the product of volcanic action.  Though smaller than the Hawaiian Islands, it was most certainly larger than Rarotonga.  There was the low flat area along the coast, a wide lagoon encircling much of the island, and then sudden sharp peaks in the interior.  And although I heard deforestation is a major problem in Samoa, the islands of Upolo and Savai’i seemed very, very green.  We flew across the channel and saw the two small islands there and the ferry steaming across to land in Savai’i port.  The airport was a very small wooden building with a single airstrip surrounded by a jungle of palms.  I felt very much I was flying somewhere far from civilization, but there was indeed a road, and soon my tourist van picked me (and my five kilos of luggage) up to begin our tour.

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At the Taga Blowholes

We picked up a passenger at the seaport, but deposited her soon at her accommodation and the Savai’i Circle Island Tour became T—-‘s personal Savai’i tour.  Much of the Circle Island tour was simply driving around the island.  It took quite some time as Savai’i is the largest island in Polynesia outside of Hawaii & New Zealand.  Yet despite its size it is sparsely populated, only a two-lane road circling the island.  No roads in the interior except those that lead to plantations.  Very small villages hug the road at intervals.  But there are stretches absent of population, often around lava flows where the land is simply hard solidified lava.  I waded with sea turtles and viewed the rainforest from a 30-foot high suspended forest walkway.

The best stop was at the Taga Blowholes, the largest blowholes in the world.  That day the waves were hard and high, and the blowholes then shot water high into the air, maybe as high as 50 feet.  There was a tremendous “Whoosh” sound as the pressure in the holes would build and the sea water was forced into the air.  Standing some 50-feet away, I was still dusted with a salty spray.

Though the tour was to also include a visit to the only waterfall on the island and a historical site, those were off the itinerary because, as my tour guide told me, there was an active court case involving the land.  This was disappointing as these are supposed to be two of the best sites on the island, but there was little I could do about it.  The weather was turning, the sky darkening, and some rain falling; I was tired and happy to go to my guesthouse.

I stayed at the Lagoon Chalets; a place that had come well-recommended.  I paid nearly US$25 to stay in a two-mattress shack.  This shack came with four walls, a roof, a floor, a shelf, and a bare light bulb.  I was told the light was a special touch not often found in such places.  The $25 also included two meals, though there was a limited menu to choose from.  Actually, there was no menu–you just ate what the manager and the assistant were having.  And it consisted of rice, taro root with coconut sauce, shredded cabbage, carrot, and beet salad, and fish of the day or noodle soup.  It was okay for one night; I could not imagine having taro root with coconut sauce day in and day out.  I had an early night in my room, reading by my bare light bulb, then falling asleep to the lapping waves.

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Wading with sea turtles (they like mango)

I tried some more lazing about the next day.  I was to be on the 2 PM ferry back to Upolo and the ferry terminal was a 20-minute walk down the road.  I woke up and lazed in my chalet/shack.  I had a simple breakfast of eggs, tea, and toast.  I went down to the mini dock, and read a book while sitting on a picnic bench.  Then I simply lay on the deck in the sun.  I moved back to my chalet/shack.  Back to the dining area.  Back to the dock.  And so on.  I could never laze in one place for too long and there were only so many lazing places in the guesthouse area.  The hours until 1:30 dragged.  Then suddenly it was time to go.

I caught a ride with two other guys heading for the ferry.  I bought a water and a Baby Ruth bar before jumping on the ferry.  I did not want to have too much in my stomach on this boat.  I embarked, took my motion sickness tablet, some water, plus a fruit leather and half a small bag of walnuts.  In less than ten minutes after the boat was underway, I regretted having eaten anything at all.  The boat was listing heavily from side to side.  It seemed we were moving more back and forth than we could possibly be moving forward.  There was a great heave and a creak as we listed left and then a pause before we rushed back to the right.  Despite being next to the overworked air conditioner, I began to sweat.  I needed to make a decision:  either remain immobile the entire journey, laying prone on the front bench by the air conditioner, breathing heavily, and trying to keep my stomach down – or find a restroom quickly and be rid of anything that was sloshing about my stomach.  But I knew once I stood up, the time frame to find the restroom was going to be limited.

I bolted upright, scanning the room.  The cold sweat beading on my upper lip.  I saw nothing but seats.  The act of moving my head to look around was extremely unpleasant.  I felt a rise in my throat; I took a deep breath.  I stood and began to walk to the stairs down into the car area.  My balance was off terribly.  I stumbled around like a drunk.  Nothing appeared to be downstairs.  I could see several people laying as still as possible, eyes rolling into their heads, most certainly feeling much the same as I did.  I continued my search for a restroom, groping at benches as I was thrown from one to the other.  I tried to keep the panic down.  I found the restroom.  It was pitch-black, the only light coming from when the door would rapidly swing open on a list.  Inside the restroom was like a boiler room.  The air was humid and stagnant.  I was sweating profusely.  It was as if I were in the height of a malarial fever.  In the dark I found the stall, and well, you know.  I felt weary and slightly disoriented.  After maybe ten minutes I clumsily made my way back to the front bench in front of the blessed air conditioner, the television was screening the movie “Free Willy 3;” I lay down.  I rest quietly immobile for the rest of the hour and 20-minute journey.  Disembarking made me very happy.

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Rainforest walkway

Then came yet more of the Samoan transport waiting game.  My bag, having completed its tour of Upolo, joined me at the ferry terminal.  Once reunited, the driver dropped my bag and I off at the Faleolo Airport three hours before the 7 PM flight.  Despite being the Samoa International Airport, there was almost nothing there.  There was a bank and a restaurant, but locked up tight.  There were also terribly uncomfortable plastic chairs, an ATM, and a restroom.  Luckily, I still had a book to read.  I chatted with a Spanish couple.  I tried various positions to comfortably read my book in those plastic chairs.  Eventually time moved forward and the check-in officials arrived 30 minutes before the flight.  By 7:30 PM we were all waiting for immigration to open.  Once through immigration (in record time), an announcement comes on informing us the flight had been cancelled due to a broken plane.  No one moved.  The announcer tried again.  This certainly elicited reactions.  Lots of swearing and declarations of “no way” and “you have got to be kidding” from the Westerners.  The Samoans and the family from Tonga weren’t happy, but they had more resigned reactions.  We all filed back through immigration, received our departure tax money again, and then went to wait at the check in counter.  There would be no more flights until the next day.  I would miss my connecting flight to Honolulu.

I accepted hotel accommodation in Apia offered by the airline.  The next day I had to return to the Apia airline office.  Despite having been told all flights to Pago Pago were full, an agent managed to get me on a 2:25 PM flight and rebooked me on an 11:30 PM flight to Honolulu.  After five and a half pointless hours at Faleolo airport the day before, I also had the grand opportunity to spend a further eight hours in the equally thrilling Pago Pago airport.

Looking back, I did not see as much of Samoa as I would have liked, but in the visit, I was happy and busy, even considering the long and frustrating transport waiting times.  Overall, I accepted that things just move on their own flexible schedules in Samoa and the people are very kind.

 

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Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Five: Samoan Hospitality and Making the Most of the Journey

More on my three-week trip to three Polynesian islands – I arrive at my final destination, Samoa, and proceed to…get nowhere fast.  Another gentle reminder that in the South Pacific you cannot do anything but slow down, take your time, and smell the flowers.

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Quite possibly the best part about American Samoa

I dislike arriving in a new country at night.  There is the confusion associated with trying to find your way around a new place when the landmarks and signs are cloaked in dusk or darkness.  There is also the very real possibility of being ripped off.  In my experience it is far easier to be taken advantage of in a new place in the dark than when I arrive in the day.  The banks, information booths, transport stations and the like are closed or running on far more limited schedules.  I have more confidence I can thwart would-be advantage takers when the sun is shining.  Whether it is truly the case or I have simply psyched myself up to believe this as truth I cannot say.  But on this trip, I could hardly avoid arriving after dark.  I suppose the Polynesian Islands are less frequently visited and therefore airlines can place those routes on the backburner, or rather on the less popular times.  If you want to go to Fiji or Rarotonga or Samoa, you will have to be satisfied with arriving at 2 am or 12:30 am or 9 pm or simply not go at all.

Despite Rarotonga being such a small island with a small airport, the late night (or early morning, depending on your perspective) arrival was very pleasant.  The terminal seemed to suddenly light up, a beacon to the weary travelers.  The light joke regarding the single baggage claim area brightened everyone.  The cheery ukulele music struck up as soon as the first person set foot in the terminal was welcoming.  There was even a small board with traveler information – from resorts to backpacker – available to the late arrivals.  And someone from the hostel was waiting for me in the arrival area to sweep me into a van and off to the hostel with no fuss and no worries.

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This was long among my favorite pictures from Samoa

Not so arriving in American Samoa.  At 9 PM in the evening there were plenty of people inhabiting the waiting chairs, and standing in check-in lines, but there was very little else to do.  The vending machines were on, but no banks were open, no changing money facilities – not even an ATM that I could see – no restaurants, no tourist information booth, or even an information kiosk were available to the evening arriver.  This to me only heightens the confusion and immediately sets the traveler ill at ease.   There hadn’t been a shred of food available on the two-and-a-half-hour flight from Rarotonga; I was ravenous.  There was no one to ask about a good hotel or hotel rates.  I simply asked a security guard, and he told me the closest hotel was the Pago Pago Airport Hotel.  As my greatest ambition in American Samoa was to find the quickest way out and on to Western Samoa, I thought closest would be best – even at US$85 a night.  Though that may sound high, it is actually in the low range of accommodation costs in American Samoa.  Welcome to America.

My brief stay in American Samoa seemed as typically American as one can imagine.  I stayed in a relatively expensive hotel, watched CNN and Jay Leno and several other shows I cannot remember, I could not walk anywhere and thus had to be transported to the hotel in a taxi (in fact without a car you are pretty much stuck in American Samoa) and I had McDonald’s for dinner – the only restaurant still open when I found myself getting settled at the hotel at almost 11.  The proprietor of the Pago Pago Airport Hotel was a large, friendly Samoan woman who drove me to McDs, and arranged for my taxi back to the airport the next day (and even paid for it) – but this was about as Samoan as the experience got.

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Friendly Samoan cops

The next day I headed to the airport around 10:30 as the first flight to Apia in Western Samoa left at 11 am.  I had no ticket.  As there were no airport staff around except for one check-in agent, and a few other random people who flanked the agent whose role was unclear, the only way to find out information was to stand in line.  This was the first time I have ever tried to check in to a flight on which I do not have a ticket.  But I gather that although this might be odd for me, it is not too terribly unusual in Samoa.  Quite a number of activities seem very flexible.

At the counter the agent told me to wait, someone would be along to help.  The agent would be right back; there was another foreigner also waiting to do the same.  And so, we waited.  Some friendly Samoans hanging around the counter engaged me in conversation.  A ticket agent arrived, told us to meet him in the Polynesian Air office, then immediately disappeared.  It took myself and the other foreigner some 30 minutes to find the office.  Tickets were sorted out; however, only outbound flights could be guaranteed; we would have to set the return in Apia the following day.  At least I had a ticket to Apia for 1:45 PM.

Back in the line, my new Samoan friends said they would take care of my bags while another woman took me to the local Cost-u-less store for some lunch.  One might think this an odd decision on my part.  My bags were out of sight with perfect strangers while I drove away with another one.  But really all they said they would do happened.  My bags were untouched where I left them and the woman drove me to the store.  Later, as I sat in the airport snack lounge (Cost-u-less was closed) the ticket agent asked for my ticket.  He trotted off and had me checked in and my bag taken care of within five minutes.  Samoan hospitality!

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Downtown Apia

The hospitality did not end, but it turned out I was everyone’s new friend and thus needed to reciprocate.  An airport security officer thrust an open can of Mountain Dew in my hand, telling me to deliver it to my friend.  My “friend” being my new check-in helper and bag watcher I had only set eyes on an hour before.  I found myself wandering around the airport gingerly carrying his open Mountain Dew in search of him.  I must have looked terribly lost because another airport official approached me to ask me if I needed help.  I explained what was surely a bizarre story about searching for the owner of the Mountain Dew, but the man did not blink an eye and joined me in my search.  We found Mr. Mountain Dew at the immigration counter, where I handed over the can.

Now I had Mr. Customs to help me.  Noting that I still need to pick-up an order at the snack bar, he tells me he can take my passport and complete all the immigration paperwork for me while I am in the restaurant.  This seems one step too far on my trust-o-meter so I decline.  He decides instead to join me at the restaurant.  He sits at my table, orders a beer (despite being on duty), pays for my lunch, then takes my passport and completes my immigration departure forms.  HE waits for me as I eat, accompanies me back to immigration, then stamps me through.  There he tells me to wait, he will give me a letter to give to his friend in Apia.  I can hardly believe this is happening.  I look around, I am dying to share this bizarre situation with someone, but this must be completely normal in Samoa.  He returns with a letter I am to give to Gary at Polynesian Airlines in Apia, then gives me his telephone number in case I ever need help again in American Samoa.  Then he walked away, and I headed for the plane.

One would think this could not get stranger, but it does.  As I sit down in my seat, 1A, the pilot suddenly turns around and says “T—-, your friend Brian told me to tell you not to forget the letter for Gary.”  How did I get on a first name basis with the pilot and who the hell is Brian?  Brian told me he was the Prime Minister of Anu’u.  The pilot asks me if Brian explained how I was to know Gary when I saw him.  I said no.  The pilot tells me it won’t be a problem as Gary will most likely be the biggest guy I have ever seen.  And off we go to Apia.

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Sunset in Apia Harbor – worth it!

Landing in Apia some 40 minutes later, the pilot reminds me again to give the letter to Gary.  After clearing immigration (which took all of about one minute) I find Gary quite easily.   He is a short but extremely stout man, perhaps as wide around as he is tall.  I say “Gary, I have a message for you,” and hand over the envelope.  Gary shuttles me and the pilot to an office with combination locks on the door.  I am told to sit in the chair by his desk.  I feel I have done something wrong.  He opens the letter, reads it, then barks at me “Who is this woman?”  There is obviously a woman mentioned in the letter.  I say “I don’t know.”  The pilot asks me “Didn’t Brian tell you about this letter?”  I say “No, I just met Brian 20 minutes before the flight.”  They decide the letter has nothing to do with me and I am free to go.  Welcome to Samoa.

Given all the work I put in just to arrive in country and settle in to the guesthouse, it is no wonder I spent the rest of the day doing very little.  I went only on a short self-guided walk around Apia town, the country’s capital and main port.  But I felt very accomplished and happy.