We have moved from the South Pacific to the Arctic. Goodbye to eternal sunshine, dense rainforest, smiling faces & coral reefs. Hello to darkness, snow, bush pilots, & subsistence living. You can follow our new blog at qikiqtagruk.blogspot.
If there was a word that could describe our (first) American Samoan Christmas, it was nostalgia.
Even though we both had been living here for two years, last year did not really count, since we were off exploring Fiji, drinking kava, and generally celebrating in a grand tourist festive mood. This year, though, we had our winter trip early (see previous Tonga post), and decided to spend the holidays in good ole Pago Pago.
We started it off by (trying to) watching the much-vaunted Christmas Choir in the open-air stage in Utulei. Parking two blocks away in the new market (all spaces were full with the traditional Samoan big trucks), we skirted past the (unarmed) police sitting by the side of the street (hey, this is the Pacific, cops don't stand!) and took up a post to watch the event. We mused quietly about how, as palagis, we would always be strangers looking in through the Fa'a Samoa window, no matter how long we've stayed here.
The day before Christmas, when everyone held their breath and looked out of their houses in anticipation of waiting, was spent chatting up families and sending greetings through the wire. We had spinach lasagna for our Christmas eve dinner (it's got red and green -- counts as a christmassy food, right?), and reminisced about our families' holiday traditions (the Brinkers are nothing if not a ritualized clan). Old Christmas songs (donated by a friend) played in the background, and sighs rang out as we viewed the harbor at night, intermittently lit by garish lights, but otherwise serene beneath the shadow of the Samoan mountains.
We closed up our windows on Christmas day to go hiking on Mount Alava with the Swedish radiologist, and talked most of the way about departures, trips, adventures, travelers, and the people that always get left behind. We had our post-hike ice cream, instead of at our traditional Samu (home-made!) stop, in the local McDs, with Tim slightly sick at being seen in such a nefarious place. We did admire the beautiful glass-paned windows through which you can see the yachts sleeping on their moorings.
Craving for ham, guaranteed great dessert, and other people's insight, we headed over to another couple's house for dinner. Over glasses of wine/beer/water, we watched the sky darken to twilight, and smiled as the stars announced their arrival. It was, after all, like a black-and-white picture, a memory, a window to the past, that could only happen once in a while.
I’m not sure why I became interested in the far reaches of the globe, how people interact with their various environments, or what historical events transpired to shape our present world. As a child i can remember spinning the world globe, but at the time those different colored places seemed like make-believe. Life is usually a cascade of events: my river flowed from searching for something else, being introduced/open to new ideas, meeting others with different backgrounds. These concepts have consumed my thoughts for the last decade or so.
Most people find history painstakingly boring, recalling days of falling asleep during high school civil war lessons. I’m not sure if this is by design or just the legacy of an educational system hollowed out from the inside. My view of modern education is that it makes you smart enough to pull the lever, but not to question why your pulling the lever. History is not just another subject, just as the “outdoors” should not be classified alongside other interests: such as computers or entertainment, or sports. History connects us with the past and allows us to view to future with a grain of salt. For indigenous people, their oral history was everything, how they viewed themselves, where they came from, & rituals connecting them to the land. Today, ask a teenager about an historical event which happened last year and they will say who cares or where Russia is on a map and you will receive a blank stare. Unfortunately, we can’t understand our present situation without recognizing the context of our time period. History does repeat itself and certain events are circular.
Rapidly disappearing ways of life and languages are a distressing aspect of modernization, some even view it as our slow decline into the abyss. Yet, at the same time humans have never before been able to transport themselves into the far reaches of the globe, literally arriving in London for afternoon tea. This has enabled a person interested in anthropology or geography to visit remote corners of the planet and observe other humans living another way different from their own. You cannot see these things behind the walls of an exclusive resort, from the deck of a stadium style cruise ship, or in front of your mind numbing television. Presently, we have the unique chance of interacting with others whose language, culture, and way life question the foundations of our own existence.
My interest in indigenous cultures and “third world” cultures stems from the desire to turn back the clock per se. Without the rapid technological transformation of society, you can still view a slightly adulterated picture of how we evolved culturally. Indigenous societies, are usually:
1. Rural- practicing farming
2. Traditional animist- recognizing animals and their environment as having spiritual qualities
3. Oral traditions- handing down history to the next generation
4. Specific focus on the family
5. Pace of life is accordance with natural biorhythms
This window to the past helps to explain or shed light on certain “mental illness”, alienation, or eccentric behaviors shown in our modern society. I encourage everyone to study the disciplines of psychology/sociology, anthropology, history, geography, and natural sciences.
It is one thing to read about these cultures and arrive at a perspective, but nothing replaces first hand experience. When the opportunity presented itself, we jumped about the chance to live in this hybrid society, caught between Polynesian tradition and American gluttony. The result is not always a story cut for national geographic and may be something for “purists” to thumb their noses at, but few places exhibit the results of such a violent collision of cultures as that of Pago Pago. Young men coming home from football practice, shoulder pads/helmet slung over their shoulder, with a traditional lavalava wrapped around their waist. An underground oven “umu” feast after a Sunday Mormon service of worship. The family, all 14, riding in the back of the pickup with American flags waving, as Samoan ukulele music blares from the speakers. Fafafines or tranvestites, holding a modern beauty pageant, with an opening prayer lead by the local minister. Young men arriving back from Iraq, venerated as traditional warriors- leis placed around their necks. Samoans even celebrate flag day, the official day that they came under the clutches of colonial rule by the united states.
The verdant island of Savaii is the third largest landmass in Polynesia, following Hawaii and New Zealand. It is home to over 43,00 people and was once the center of the non-violent Mau a Pule movement against colonial rule in the early 1900s. Fa'a Samoa or traditional Samoan society remains strong on the oldest island off the Samoan archipelago. We
decided to spend a week in a traditional beach fale (hut) overlooking the sugary Manase beach.
Savaii is mountainous, fertile, and surrounded by coral reefs. In comparison to Tutuila (our island) the size 659sq miles to 54 sq miles, highest peaks of Mt. Silisili (6,096 ft) to Mt Matafao (2,142ft), Savaii is expansive and flat. The people are much thinner than those in American Samoa, due to more traditional lifestyle (diet & exercise), fewer cars grace its smooth straight roads. All cars drive on the left-side, changed last September in order for New Zeland car dealers to corner the market. This was the last country to change sides since the 1960's. I have to admit that im a bit partial to Tutuila's geography, where steep cliffs plunge into the pounding surf & coves are carved into the dramatic coastline. Yet, Savaii has the knid of beaches you dream of when someone mentions the south pacific.
The plan was to stay on the north side of Savaii, in the Manase district and scuba dive for several days. The area was covered in a series of volcanic explosions from Mt. Matavanu in the early 1900's, blackened rock dominates the landscape as far as the eye can see. The trip was planned with German percision, unfortunately we were using Samoan transportation.
A week before our departure date, the only plane of the stellar Inter-island Air fleet caught on fire in the outer island of Tau. This was the second aircraft fire in less than a month, the other being the Governor's plane. I frantically placed phone calls to the airport, only to be met with "we're not sure what the plan is, check the day before your flight." The day before we were set to leave, I was told they chartered the other airline's plane, only problem was we had to be ready by 3am.
At 5:30am we touched down on the island of Upolu, took a taxi to the wharf to catch the 7am ferry to Savaii. As the taxi driver unloaded our bags he stated, there is no ferry until 2pm. Thinking nothing of why we would want to sit at the ferry terminal for the next seven hours. An old woman laughing at us & selling breadfruit advised us about a ferry across the island in the capital of Apia. We caught another van taxi across Upolu with a driver who kept calling me champ. Finally, we boarded the 3 hour ferry to Savaii on the new boat donated by Japan. If you ever wonder why rich countries provide aid or donate things to poor countries, think about Japan's Whale lobby. Where they go around the world philantropically building schools, health centers, and donating ferries to third world nations in return for a voting consensus on whaling issues. Anyway the ferry was comfortable, and i spotted a peace corps volunteers whose website i had viewed on the internet. The Peace Corps program was started in 1967 and currently 35 volunteers serve mainly as teachers. To my knowledge many also specialized in hanging out, drinking beer, and scuba diving.
Crossing the Apolima straight to Savaii, while reading A People's History of the United States, my thougts mingled with the landscape & grappled with a moment in time that i was living. Where was I? How did I get here?
... Perhaps no other region conjures up so many romantic visions as Polynesia—swaying palms plopping their coconuts onto deserted beaches, the fabled missionaries, and beachcombers. Michener and Maugham have described it, Gauguin captured it on canvas. The names of Captain Cook, William Bligh, Bloody Mary and Sadie Thompson mingle together in a confusion of history and fantasy...
My Walter Middy daydream was rudely interupted by a bull horn announcing we had landed. We gathered our scuba gear and haggled for a reasonable taxi fare to Tanu Beach Fales. We passed people going about their daily lives, pigs running across the road, horses slapping flies from their backs, people living in open air fales- their things open for all eyes to see. Fales usually have a roof, thatch or corrugate, for posts, pull down thatch side or none at all. To the westerner our first paranoid thought is that there is no privacy, to the Samoan, have everyone hang out and share your life. We arrived at a family compound, waited for welcome drinks which never materialized, and were finally shown to our fale, perched on the powdery beach of manase. We were to spend the next week in a hut, scuba diving, reading, and feeling alive.
Unfortunately, we could not document this trip, due to someone pilfering our camera, but you can imagine. White beach as far as the eye could see, snuggled up to a technicolor reef, filled with bath water. As David Byrne of the Talking Heads said "oh heaven, this must be the place." Well, until the drunk Germans next door started wrestling on the beach (Nein! Nein!). Oh well...
As we settled in for the night, listening to the lapping of the waves, Michelle realized we had forgotten our contact solution, which for a dive trip is catastrophic. We argued about what to do when we remembered a similar situation, using 0.9% normal saline solution during our Papua New Guinea trip. We asked where the closest medical clinic was (10 mintues away), and arrived and gestured about our need (as they spoke no English) returning 20 minutes later with a syringe w/ needle intact filled with 50 cc of saline solution: mission accomplished.
The next morning Dive Savaii picked us up and brought us to the dive shop. Run by a wonderful French & South African, with 2 visiting dive masters from Czech Republic. The first day of diving was Coral Gardens. This dive site consists of a huge variety of corals: cabbage coral, bubble coral, leather coral, head coral, purple coral… you can reach a max depth of 18-20 meters, following the reef wall, enjoying the coral along with its inhabitants. Big schools of parrot fish, snappers, lazy turtles, eagle rays… sea cucumbers, nudibranches, clown fish, star fish and if you have a quick eye, the titan trigger fish. The second dive was wreck juno, a 3 mast missionary sailing ship which sunk in Lelepa bay in 1881. This iron wreck is full of corals, where one can easily see trumpet fish, turtles and a wide variety of colourful reef fish, parrot fish, yellow snappers, big-eyes and much more. The max. depth one reaches here is 25 meters. We dove with an argetinian guy, and shared the boat with 4 Peace Corps volunteers completing their PADI Open Water Training Course.
That night we were invited to a BBQ at the French owners house, consisting of chicken & burgers. Living in the South Pacific, you attend a wide variety of barbeques. It was wonderful, people from all over the world, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, etc. Atmosphere was festive, with the dive shops daughter blowing soap bubbles, over a drinking game in Samoan, drowned out by South American singer Manu Ciao. Many Vailimas were consumed and we rested the next day, Sunday along with the whole archipelago.
At night we all ate together under the moonlight, serenated by traditional Samoan music and Siva Dancing. We walked on the beach, curled our toes into the sand, and swam under a Van Gogh esque starry night.
Monday's dive consisted of Lelapa bay self-swim w/o divemaster and the Juno Shipwreck to Coral Gardens route. We saw a 4 foot barracuda named Victor, who was very curious about what we were doing in his neighborhood. These dives were with a nice couple from the South Island of New Zeland, although they were pretty bad divers. Not to be a diving snob, but there is a big difference if everbody knows what they are doing vs not.
Michelle's 30+ birthday correlated with our last and most definitely best day of diving. All of the conditions lined up, minimal wind, calm seas, adequate sunlight to make excellent visibility. Luckily, we were all experienced divers and we made a congo line through Canyon Pinnacle. This dive site consists mainly of pinnacles with many swim-throughs and canyons to explore, reaching a depth of 25 meters. You will also enjoy the blue vastness of the ocean with usual 20m plus visibility. The ocean floor will reveal jenkin rays, cracks and crevices will reveal turtles and puffer fish, soft corals house clown fish and a variety of hard corals housse assorted reef fish. After snaking through the last of the 12 caves or swim-throughs, we all surfaced with big smiles on our faces. Its a feeling that divers get after they know that the conditions were just right.
Realizing the return journey home might be as adventurous as the original, we called the airlines, no problem, all systems are a go. Unfortunately, after crossing the straight and ariving at the airport, we were told "we're in a holding pattern." For the next 6 hours, we waited until at 6pm it was announced to no-one's surprise that the flight was canceled. Thankfully, the 1 aircraft airline, put us up at a decent hotel (well, thats after a week in a hut), paid for transportation and dinner- now that's Fa'a Samoa. We contacted work and told them of our predicament.
We finally arrived back on Tutuila, 1 day and 1/2 after leaving Savaii- yet we had smiles ear to ear. Sometimes simple pleasures are really the deepest and longest-lasting.