Saturday, November 19 (Day 81)
Lalomanu – Apia, Samoa
Fact of the day: Pacific yellow-bellied sea snakes gather in swarms at breeding season that have been observed up to 100 kilometres in length.
I don't want to leave. I don't want to leave...
My final night of sleeping in a beach fale is probably the most restless of all my time in Fiji in Samoa. I was always going to struggle, faced with an all-out night-time assault from the fear and my break-up demons, but the crying babies, howling packs of dogs and fruit bats feeding their young, don’t really help me too much either.
This is as far east as I go. When my bus departs here today I begin four days of travel heading in a south westerly and then a predominantly north westerly direction. From Apia it is 2890 kilometres to Auckland - I guess a similar distance as it is from London to Moscow. When you realise that Hawaii is another 3000 kilometres in the other direction, you start to appreciate just how vast the Pacific Ocean is.
Just as I’m leaving Taufua I discover that eight of the All Blacks – those All Black players with Samoan roots – will be here on Sunday. That would have been a rather apt way to finish my 2011 Rugby World Cup trip.
Perched on boxes of ripened cooking bananas and bread fruit, Christmas carol reggae tunes a-playing, I begin my two-hour bus journey back to Apia, bumping into my German friends, Dorothee and Tom, as they jump on a couple of kilometres up the road. The journey takes us through the stunning interior of Upolu, with virgin rainforest, misty rivers and vertical soaring mountains. In our tradition we say that the mountain over there used to be a man before he turned into rock. Do you think that might be possible? My new rugby-mad 15-year-old Samoan friend asks me, pointing out at the strangely shaped distant set of mountains. Yes, why not? I think anything is possible. Maybe it isn’t true but there’s a good chance that it might really be correct.
As we reach Apia I spot my second game of kirikiti since I have been in Samoa. Basically, this is a unique version of the game of cricket that is only played in Samoa. I wish I could film this game because it really does look like a Monty Python sketch making fun of the sport of cricket. I mean, they have three stumps but they are twice as big and twice as wide as in the game we are all familiar with. Instead of wearing all whites, the Samoans are playing in multi-coloured sarongs, and seem to be jumping up and down singing and shouting as the bowler races in to bowl. The ‘cricket bat’ appears to be much larger than we might expect and, if I am not mistaken, it looks from the window of my passing bus like it is made of plastic, not willow. A couple of the fielders also appear to be holding cricket bats out on the boundary line. The ball also seems exceedingly bouncy. Very, very bizarre stuff. Deserving of further investigation when I get back to England next week.
I am not quite up to 5pm clubbing, so a sweaty afternoon lie low, during a thunderstorm, takes me through till the crazy time of 6.30pm. I always look forward to taxi drives here. My young afable Samoan driver purchased the taxi we are in with the cash he managed to save from picking apples in New Zealand for seven months. Now he lives back in Samoa so he can help support his extended family on Upolu. Fa’a-Samoa – the Samoan way of life, takes precedence over everything in this country of 180,000. Practically every day I hear stories of how Samoans have returned home from abroad just so they can look after their parents, cousins and grandparents. These people are driven by family values and concerns for their loved ones, not by the selfish individual greed of that thing we call capitalism.
Y-Not Bar is packed out and, fortunately for me, it is happy hour for another 60 minutes. At just 5 tala (1.3 pounds) for a rum&coke, the hour is indeed happy. Peering out at the monsoon rain flooding Apia’s streets, Samuel comes over and introduces himself:
I can see you are alone my friend so I thought I’d come and join you.
Samuel is the assistant commissioner of the Samoan national fire service. He’s a lovely bloke, aged around 30 I guess, and as well as keeping me company until my German friends arrive, he also buys me a double rum & coke before leaving to see his father. I’ve experienced this kind of behaviour from Samoans throughout my time here. They will come over to you, introduce themselves, buy you a drink, thank you for choosing to holiday in their country and then offer their help should you have any problems during the remainder of your stay. Each and every one of them seems to value their family above any personal desires for wealth and status. You really have got to love the Samoans.
The party might not be as bonkers as it was on my first night on Samoa but it is still pretty barking. Like a scene straight out of Twin Peaks, I glance around the corner of one door to see if the dimly-lit men’s toilet cubicle is free, only for a Chinese dwarf to walk out under the arm I’m using to balance up against the wall. There are girls wearing midsummer’s eve garlands in their hair – something I’ve only ever seen in the Baltic States - and the Samoan fa’afafine (those blokes who dress up like girls but are still boys) are out in big numbers, giggling and smiling a lot. An evening of clubbing in Apia is fun, silly and bizarre in ways that are difficult to explain unless you experience it for yourself…which you should one day if you get the chance. The sign which reads: No smoking till 10pm, sums it all up.
With my German friends down and out by 11pm and off home in a taxi, I nip down the road to V-Bar (the place where I spent much of my first ‘crazy’ night in Apia, two weeks ago) to buy some food. The club is still kicking and I’ve made instant friends with the campest bunch of lads I have met in my entire life. Spotting me glancing at a passing high-heeled Samoan girl one of the lads asks me: Darling, you sure you aren’t checking out the guy and not the girl? No, the girl lads. That’s a shame sweetie. I get introduced to many of the best known personalities in the local Samoan gay scene as well as to a couple of their (apparently) jealous boyfriends. They are good value company this lot. I can even deal with one of the lads telling me I look sexy tonight. I sense though, after finishing my chips, the club kicking out, and one of the lads inviting me to a private party, that it is time for me to get myself a taxi home.
As ever, finding and stopping a cab is as easy as buying a pint of milk. My driver tells me he plays rugby to a high standard in New Zealand but he has come home because his grannie wants him to be nearer to her in her latter years. These people are lovely.
Thursday, November 10 (Day 72)
Manase – Mount Matavanu Volcano Crater – Manase (Samoa)
It’s around 6am as a scary giant black object descends from inside of my mosquito net and parks itself at the end of my bed.
Get away! Get away! What the hell are you? Leave me alone!
Curled up in a ball, I’m lashing out at this creature with my sweaty bed sheets but it just isn’t moving. I now find myself punching it and pleading for it to leave me the hell alone. Half panicking and barely awake, I take a big kick at the creature and send it flying out of my mosquito net and on to the floor. It doesn’t make a sound. Waiting a couple of minutes - a nearby cockerel showing off to everybody that he’s up and about - I finally pluck up the courage to peer over the side of my bed and investigate what this horrid creature of the night; this Satan’s spawn is.
It is my jeans and black t-shirt, which I’d carefully folded up and left at the end of my bed when I crashed last night. I don’t quite know how I could have had such a vivid dream about the creature floating down out of the sky but as I opened my sleepy little eyes the dream and the reality just sort of merged into one in an instant, and my jeans and t-shirt really looked like the thing in my dream. I guess I can blame it on the poison from that bloody hornet that stung me last night circulating around my body or, alternatively, I’ve finally gone well and truly over the edge. My finger is now the size of one of those blow-up novelty hands with the pointy finger that you can buy at joke shops. It’s red and huge, and hurts considerably more than my scorpion sting did in Africa last year.
As it is proving so damn hard to get out of Manase on public transport I’ve decided to team up with Charlie, an ex-St Helen’s rugby player, Barbara, a German primary school teacher, and Carlos, the weatherman on Spain’s Channel 4 News. They are going to do the 20kilometre hike to the local volcano crater today and will share a taxi up to the peninsula with me tomorrow.
We set off in a taxi and get dropped off 8kilometres from the ‘volcano crater payment hut’. It’s a beautiful, peaceful walk along a cleared track, past plantations rich with fruit and vegetables, the local birds singing their hearts out. The self-sufficient life is alive and well in Samoa. It’s another 28 degrees day and another dark, overcast morning with constant heavy downpours. We three lads are soaked through to the bone but Barbara has come properly prepared with waterproofs and a brolly. It seems like the glorious sunbathing days in the South Pacific are well and truly over.
Carlos presents the weather to about half a million people each evening when he’s doing his day job. Charlie has already invented a nickname for him: Scorchio, inspired by the Fast Show sketch. Scorchio is a sound lad, happy, he says, to be out of his usual suit and tie attire and hiking through paradise in his shorts and vest top with no deadlines hanging over him. We discuss the economic crisis in Spain and he tells me that salaries, including his own, are being viciously cut pretty much across the board. Spain is spiralling downwards at pace. Charlie was playing for St Helen’s when he picked up a shocking knee injury. One more injury later, his promising career was cut short after a season playing in the French First Division. Charlie Glass Knee is only 24 and has switched career paths to become a photojournalist. Already he’s had photos published in the Guardian, so he’s well on his way to a different kind of stardom it seems. Barbara is the first person I’ve met on this trip who has made up her own nickname/alter ego for me. Her name actually isn’t Barbara at all but as we reach the payment hut and meet Da World Famous Craterman, she tells him, seemingly for no apparent reason, that her name is Barbara. Da World Famous Craterman looks like a bearded aborigine who doesn’t shower very often. All around his hut there are rather odd signs in pidgin English declaring that Da World Famous Craterman is the main man and an inspiration to all that pass here.
People from 126 countries come here to see my crater. I very famous around the world. Yesterday boy come from new country I never hear about before. I forget name.
He runs over to his book and proudly points to:
Girts from Latvija.
Yes, Latvia! New person come from Latvia. New country. Heeheee heee heee hoooo
Amongst this fella’s 126 countries there’s a country that goes by the name of ‘Sargistan’, and two of the Anglo-Saxon world’s wannabe breakaway states, namely Texas and Cornwall. Country ‘105’ is Jersey; ‘117’ Wisconsin; and ‘Africa’ also gets its own Da Craterman statehood.
Recovered from this burst of excitement our strange host takes us to his hut, asks us to sign his guestbook and then demands 20 Tala each for the privilege of passing beyond here and continuing on to the crater. Six quid is a hell of a lot of cash to walk past somebody’s wooden hut. Barbara, who I sense always plays things on her own terms, tells Da World Famous Craterman she certainly isn’t going to pay that much money for said privilege. She’s right. It is absurd, but Samoa is absurd in general. What follows is the spectacle of a Mexican standoff with neither of them willing to back down. I’m too tired and too long into my world tour to argue with this hobbit, oh keeper of the key and guardian of the crater path. I certainly don’t feel like traipsing 8 kilometres straight back to the road in the torrential rain without seeing anything.
If you don’t want pay, get off my mountain! I work hard keep mountain clean and nice. (Actually I think he just sits in his hut all day, biting his toe nails and waiting to be paid for doing sweet FA) You no pay, you no visit my crater!
You’ve got to laugh. I think he just came close to dropping in a few choice expletives. This is not the cool-as-a-cucumber Da World Famous Crater Man that the Lonely Planet has been banging on about. Barbara, a lady of principles, ends the standoff by saying she’s going to leave. The three of us that remain hand over our cash to the now very agitated weirdo in the hut, and set off for the crater rim.
It’s a 600 metre sheer drop once we get there and with the lava track oozing with mud, it wouldn’t be inconceivable that some poor punter – perhaps one of us - could slip and fall into the lush abyss below and to their certain death from here. This volcano caused absolute havoc when it erupted on this island a century or so ago. Many parts of northern Savai’i are covered by the remnants of the huge lava flows, with lava fields stretching more than 10 kilometres east to west and north to south in one particular part of northern Savai’i.
Third warning! Very dangerous! Craterman is the main man.
Another one of Da Craterman’s signs reads as we negotiate the narrow rim ledge where we are rewarded with views of the waves crashing on the distant reef near our accommodation more than a dozen kilometres away. Most of Savai’I island’s interior is impenetrable. Pretty impressive for the fourth largest island in all of Polynesia after New Zealand’s North and South islands and Hawaii. There isn’t a single road that crosses through the interior. Unless, you are prepared to invest several days in a guided hike through virgin rainforest, this spot up on the crater’s edge of Mount Matavanu is about as deep into the interior of this island as it is possible to reach. The story goes that when the circular island road was completed just a few years ago, many village communities, especially those situated towards the mountainous central plateau, had never seen a white man in living memory.
Da Craterman is an inspiration to all
Not to Barbara you’re not fella.
When we finish the return leg we are back at the main road five minutes before the taxi is due. An hour later there is still no sign of the useless sod.
With no other option than to start walking back, we stroll back to the coast before Glass Knee stops off at a small shop to buy water. Upon hearing that Charlie Glass Knee and I are English, the lady who works here insists that we accept two free cans of cold drink as a present. It goes down a treat.
One of my daughters is married to an Englishman. I like the English very much
Our Samoan lady friend moved back home from Australia three years ago. She has got real class and is so much more Western than any other Samoan women I have so far met in this country. When she hears about our taxi ‘no show’ she insists again that she helps us, this time calling for her husband to give us a lift back into town with their sons in their truck. And so, Scorchio, Glass knee and I ride all the way back to Manase in the back of an open-air truck, the wind in our faces and a 12-inch long machete our only company. After being close to giving up on the bonkers Samoans, my faith has been totally restored by this family’s amazing kindness.
Hello Barbara! We shout as we pass our female friend who is strolling down the road with a lady carrying bananas on her head. Seconds later our taxi driver zips by us in the opposite direction. I guess for once he might learn that turning up an hour late is just a bit too silly, even if his country does run on Samoa Time.
Once back at the fale, rain coming down in hounds and bitches, I feel absolutely done in from my exertions. My knees are killing me. 24 kilometres of steep uphill and downhill walking is probably the most exercise I’ve had in nearly six months. I collapse on to my bed, listen to the rain and waves outside and crash out for the afternoon.