Monday, February 11, 2008

American Samoa: A Taste of Polynesian Culture

To say the Samoa islands are remote would be a vast understatement. Roughly 2,600 miles from Hawaii and nearly 1,000 to Fiji, this region was not only home to Robert Louis Stevenson, the king of castaway literature, but also home to a culture so isolated and intact that Margaret Mead conducted some of her most controversial anthropological research here. For the five days we’ve been traveling here from Hawaii neither ship nor land has been sighted, satellite TV service has been virtually nonexistent, and one can see only a mirror-like ocean for miles, this glassy sheet of lapis lazuli seemingly stretching out into infinity. It is as if our ship has floated off the map and into the great beyond.

So it is with great fondness that we approach the island of Tutuila, the largest and most populated of American Samoa’s five extinct volcanic islands, home to nearly 65,000 people. Upon first glance Tutuila is like something out of a childrens’ fairy tale – Polynesian music floats through the air, coral reefs fringe the sandy shoreline, and tree covered mountains jut sharply into the cloudless sky. At dawn the sun seems to rise out of the sea and settle her golden rays on coconut palms, air plants, mossy banks and papaya trees.

Matt and I were lucky enough to be introduced to the island by an outgoing and poised group of local high school students who narrated our journey in a mix of English peppered with bits of Samoan. Appropriately enough we boarded our brightly colored school bus for a pleasant, if rickety ride around the island, culminating in a final invitation to our guide’s village for a traditional Samoan meal and dancing. Here we learned how most Samoans use umus, or ground ovens to cook their food and we ate off of small plates woven from palm fronds as the villagers do. An overflowing feast of baked breadfruit dipped in coconut milk (the Samoan’s answer to chips and dip), spinach sprinkled with coconut meat (straight from the tree – one of the men climbed what appeared to be a 100 foot palm), ice cold Vailima Lagers and fresh roasted chicken was set out on picnic tables and we happily ate while chatting away the afternoon with our new friends.

Life does not appear to be easy here. Subsistence farming is a means of survival for many, families sleep together on the floors of their humble one-bedroom homes and professional employment opportunities are few. Evangelical Christian churches seem to outnumber people, their imposing presence and sheer multitude a testament to the fact that religion is a comfort to the many people who struggle beneath what I would imagine at times, is the weight of a very difficult existence.

Yet even with these challenges, the Samoan people appear to be far from unhappy. The laughter and love that I witnessed between families and loved ones completely dispelled this notion. Their friendliness is unparalleled - welcoming strangers into their villages and homes is something that they pride themselves on, so much so that the National Park Service will assist visitors in setting up a stay with a Samoan family in advance of traveling here. Spending the afternoon with these people so generous in spirit made me ashamed of myself, for all of the times I had wished for silly, foolish things I didn’t need, and to see people so thankful for the simple joys in life – to witness people gracious enough to invite complete strangers into their homes to share with them their food, their culture, their way of life – it impressed me beyond belief. They truly possess a richness of spirit, something so uncommon in today’s world.

However, make no mistake: these islands are for true adventurers and castaways only. Don’t come expecting five-star resorts, or even frankly, air-conditioning. Come with an open mind and a sense of discovery…this is a place where you can lay on the sand beneath the stars and literally, not see a soul.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

like the video, please scan the crowd, we have friends on board and would like to see them watching.