Friday, January 22, 2010

Better Than a Travel Guide

The bus is supposed to arrive at 6:00am but doesn’t make an appearance until 6:30. But then again, this is Samoa, the place where clocks didn’t exist until 100 years ago when the palagis, “white people,” introduced them to the slow paced culture. Some customs never fade. However the bus did arrive and that’s all that matters, because I haven’t been into town in a week and am in need of groceries. As I approach the bus, I wonder how many people will be making the same trip with me. Some days not as many, but as I reach for the outer handle on the bus, and climb the two wooden steps, I see today is going to be tight. But I am a palagi, and no matter how many people are on the bus, I always have a seat. It is part of the proper custom for a Samoan to stand or move to the back of the bus for a foreigner. The same custom also holds true for women, and elderly men. Age is of importance in Samoa, and on the bus, women are respected.

So as I predicted three people shuffle about so I can have a seat. It feels awkward for me to have others give up their seat for me, but soon I get use to it. I’ve tried to deny my seat and offer to stand, but they insist.

I’m the last one to board from my village. The bus climbs the hills slowly as it maneuvers the narrow road along the bluffs which overlook the Pacific Ocean. The bus is made mostly of wood with an engine that sounds like its on its last breath, but somehow it always keeps on truckin. The ceiling is low and presents challenges for those with height. I’ve bumped my head other days, but this morning I’m fully awake and aware. The leg room is limited, as the wooden seat back in front of me is usually firmly pressed against the joint of my knee. This is painful on the many speed bumps that exist in Samoa. But yet, I’m still thankful for my seat.

As we ride along, I forget about most discomfort as I listen to the unique mixes of music which are a staple on any bus in Samoa. For such a “plain Jane” piece of transportation, the Samoan buses have a speaker system that could rival the pimped-out cars on Chicago’s South side. The music offered has a distinct “island feel,” but most certainly always offers remixes of hip hop from back home, with the island feel. It is sometimes odd to look at the age demographics ridding the bus (mostly older) and then hear the music that is playing. I can’t imagine my Grandma ridding to the market on a bus that plays remixes of American hip hop, but then again this isn’t my Grandma’s culture.

After about 30 minutes, we reach the main road and it’s an hour ride along the ocean’s edge on a winding road. The sea is captivating as I watch the huge barrels of the waves crash, sometimes in beat with the music on board the bus. This is usually the time where I can’t believe I’m living in this country, by myself, with these people of another culture. It can send chills through me and can be an empowering feeling, giving me strength for another day or week.

On the way to town, our bus passes several villages, larger than mine. People can be seen in their open fales, “houses,” going about their morning routines. Kids are in the yards, some along the road. A man in a straw hat pushes a wheel-barrow toward the road. Many of the small shops already have customers standing at their counters. Under the counters of the stores are the red signs with white lettering that read, “Vialima,” advertising “Samoa’s very own Beer.”

We soon approach the outskirts of town, indicated by the paved sidewalks and curbs. Our bus makes its way to the fish market and we are in a different world than the one we started in an hour and a half ago. I often wonder how these people of such a slow pace of life handle maneuvering in the city where trucks, taxis and cars jam the streets. We de-board the bus and we scatter our own ways. It’s nearly 8:00am and we have only five hours to finish our errands.

Later in the afternoon, after a busy morning of shopping for groceries, I lug four plastic sacks and a full back-pack, all with groceries for the next week, back to the fish market to catch the bus. If the bus was crowded before we all went shopping, I know how it will look when I get back.

As I approach the door to the bus, a villager sitting in the first seat gets up and grabs the plastic sacks from my hand, the handles getting twisted in an awkward hand-off. I thank him and board a crowded bus, but thankfully not as crowded as last week. Last week there were woven mats, large containers of vegetables and boxes of jars, its contents unknown.

Today there are plastic bags like mine next to plastic bottles filled with kerosene. A man in one of the front seats rests his right foot on a yellow 20 pound bag of rice. Children are on the laps of their mothers, fathers, and even strangers. Children in Samoa can be held by most anyone and feel comfortable and not whine for mom or dad. It all goes back to the openness as displayed on the bus, where a stranger will gladly hold another’s infant, knowing they can expect the favor repaid in the future. It is such an enriching experience to see unfold each week.

Soon the bus is rolling out and it’s 1:00pm; the bus never leaves town late, it just gets there late. After all the hustle and bustle to get things done I take a few deep breaths and exhale.

On the way back to my village the bus makes one stop at a gas station to refill. There is also a small grocery store and several people get off the bus to buy basics such as bread and eggs. Some buy an ice cream cone. I got one last week; it’s tasty. After everyone’s back on, we pull away and head for the village.

Soon most people’s heads are nodding as they sleep. I can’t fall asleep on a fancy chartered bus in the United States, so I can usually count on the ride back as alone time. I enjoy glancing out over the ocean, wondering what the rest of the world is up to. Who else is traveling today? There’s someone getting of the New York Subway at Penn Station and another taking a taxi in Shanghai. There’s someone ridding a camel in the Egyptian Desert and a tourist on a double-decker bus in London. There’s a business man on a Continental flight flying somewhere over Colorado en route to L.A. and another just below him on an Amtrak train, ridding down the rails. Me, I’m ridding a bus on a South Pacific island, heading to a village so small, that many who live in the country don’t even know exists. Life is amazing.

As we turn off the main road, we climb the road back towards the bluffs. Once high over the ocean, our view is fantastic and something for post cards. Coconut trees bend and sway, leaning out over the hills towards the ocean’s edge. Waves crash against the rugged rocks as the bus driver brakes carefully, knowing every pothole and crevice on that familiar road. As we approach my house we spot five cows being chased down the road by a vicious looking dog. It’s a sight that reminds me I’m back in the village again.

I grab my four plastic bags and my back-pack too, as the bus driver comes to a stop. I give him his pay and wish him a good day and carefully step off. I turn back towards the bus and offer a smile to my village.

As I head to my front door, I realize what a cultural experience I’ve just been able to take part in. Samoa doesn’t have Amtrak and fancy chartered buses. They have the uncomfortable wooden buses with the great sound system and friendly gestures for those who ride. If you ever visit Samoa, or any other country, take the local transportation and you will learn more than any tourist book could ever describe. In the meantime, I will be looking forward to next week when I hear the hip-hop coming towards my house.

1 comment:

  1. God is so big and we are so small. Yet He delights in the small things. Which Kyle I wish I took more time to notice. I am so glad you are taking the time to so called smell the roses as we say it back in the states. God is good. It is almost unbelievable to hear of people doing good deeds today in America like getting up for a fellow person, holding a mom's baby, or helpping with someone's groceries. God is using you to inspire me, and most likely many others.