Day One: On the Road
Traffic. As far as the eye can see. Four lanes of traffic. Concrete freeway. White lane stripes flash by me. More traffic. Stop. Go. Stop. Go.
The sun is setting, blanketing LAX in a warm glow. Still more traffic but this time in the air. Jumbo jets lined up to the horizon, coming in over Lot B and landing like bees to a hive. The air is filled with the smell of jet fuel and the whine of the engines. They whine like bees in a hive.
I’m the only traveler on the shuttle bus from Lot B. Darkness falls. Century Boulevard. Flashing neon. Nude girls. Parking. LAX. An automated voice spits out the airlines and terminals. Terminal 2. Air New Zealand.
I’m a couple of hours early and the line is empty. A large round brown face greets me with a smile and a Kiwi accent. I get my ticket and a finger points me over to the TSA line. No one in line there either. What happened to the traffic? An old tired man in a TSA uniform asks for my bags. His eyes don’t meet mine and remain looking at the floor and the pile of luggage at his feet. His salt and pepper mustache twitches ever so slightly as he takes my bags. Off to the next line. Still empty. Still no traffic. More tired faces in TSA uniforms.
Across the security threshold. Down the grungy yellowing linoleum of the terminal. My Rainbows slap the floor and then my heel. Floor. Heel. Floor. Heel. Small children run by me. Laughing. Smiling. Their father chases them through the rows of seats. Kiwi accents. Bright eyes. Tired travelers shuffle around. Glazed eyes. Too many airports. Too many airplanes. Everything begins to look the same to them.
Blackness outside the windows. Small sections of tarmac are awash in pools of orange light. Baggage trains buzz around. People in heavy boots and dark uniforms scurry under the bellies of the jumbo jets. Like bees in a hive.
I get sucked back into my book. Cyberpunk Toronto. Goth geek kids. A woman with wings. A man with a mountain for a father, a washing machine for a mother. A good escape. Time crawls by and pages turn. The jumbo jet outside whines to live and prepares to leave this hive for another.
Mike appears with his friend Craig. Introductions made. Hands shaken. Small talk as the gate area begins to fill back up. Tourists and home comers making a nighttime crossing of the Pacific. Thousands of miles of ocean. Deep. Dark. Empty.
Full flight. Big people. I read and try to sleep. Miles slip by in the dark. Cramped and uncomfortable, time crawls. I awake and take a walk to the back of the plane. Sleeping faces. The clock reads 3 A.M. local time. The smell of breakfast begins to fill the cabin. All male flight attendants except for one.
Miles, kilometers, click by as the plane hurtles itself through the blackness. An aluminum cocoon.
My ears pop. We’re descending in the blackness. Nothing out the window. Not even the ocean is visible. Small white lights begin to twinkle in the darkness. The plane drops faster. Still nothing but blackness dotted with little white lights. The plane slams onto the runway. One bounce. Two. Rolling towards the terminal.
Everyone is standing. Blinking sleep from their eyes and trying to stretch cramped limbs. Overhead bins click open. Traffic shuffles forward. Stairs to the tarmac. Recycled air conditioned air is replaced by heavy wet air. The green earthy jungle smell makes its way up my nose. It’s clean and smells like, life. Primordial life. It’s welcoming, comforting.
Traffic again, hopefully for the last time. Waiting for the passport stamp. The immigration officer is friendly, smiling as she stamps my passport. Waiting for bags. Outside again. Humid jungle air pressing down on me. Bags get loaded onto vans. The sun rises. Huge cumulus clouds begin to get kissed by light.
Mike, Craig and I crawl into the Land Cruiser while the seven other guys get into the van behind us. The Land Cruiser roars to life. The transmission growls, complains, but finds a gear.
The airport slides away. The window is down and the wind is in my face. I feel like a dog as I stick my head out and sniff the air.
Villages flash by. Fales flash by. Bright colors. Yellows. Blues. Pinks. Women wait alongside the road for the bus. Men walk carrying huge machetes. Everything is green. Smoke from morning cooking fires billows up through the jungle.
The road twists and turns, goes up and down. The jungle presses in, then clears. Presses in, then clears. I catch a glimpse of the water then we’re around a bend and it is gone. A few minutes later, we’re off the main road and the Land Cruiser comes to a creaky stop.
Without the breeze from the moving car, the heat squeezes in. The air is heavy and wet with the smell of the jungle just below. Bags get unloaded. Introductions with the staff are made. Fales are assigned. Mike and I get number 8.
Gear gets unpacked. Cameras and lenses get cleaned. Housing gets assembled.
We gather at the dock and climb into the boats. I have no idea what to expect as we putter down the river and out to the sea. The beauty of the surroundings starts to sink in. The green overpowers everything and is a beautiful contrast to the neon turquoise of the ocean. We round the sandbar at the river mouth. A small boy runs down the beach with a bamboo fishing pole. An old man sits on his haunches watching us motor past. I turn my eyes to the ocean and see a huge heaving monster unload on the reef. The size and power did not immediately register until the next wave came crashing down.
The boatman tied off on the mooring. The water is heaving, sucking off the reef. People start to jump in and paddle towards the take off spot. I grab the camera and roll off the side. I surface just in time to see a huge barrel, large enough to drive the boat through, go rolling past. The water heaves. Pushes me. Sucks me towards the reef. The current screams. Waves double up and unleash more energy than I have seen in quite some time. Everyone is scrambling, completely unprepared for the power rushing at them from the open ocean.
I hang back and shoot from the shoulder watching the carnage unfold in front of me. Waves are caught. Barrels are made. Just as many result in trips over the falls and humbling annihilation.
One by one, surfers make their way back to the boat. The trip back in is quiet but every now and then, someone breathes out a “Wow” or “Holy shit”.
Lunch. Tasty. Healthy fresh food. Way too much of it.
A couple of hours for a digestive break and we’re back in the boat heading out to the right again. Thunder rolls across the water towards us. White water flies 20 feet into the air. People ease back into the water and the paddle over to the take off is slightly slower than the morning session. I follow close behind and edge my way closer to the impact zone. Water swirls around me tugging at my fins. This reef and its power needs respect and is only a few feet below my fin tips. The water pushes and starts to drain. 10 feet of South Pacific power comes hurtling towards me. I dive as far as I can. White water thunderheads roil above. The power flows around me. Time slows. The wave seems to take forever to go by over my head. The water clears. Sunlight streams down and I’m clear.
The next set comes in. Frank, an ER trauma doctor from Florida, is up. I squeeze the trigger. The shutter clicks, a muffled clunk from inside the housing. The wave rises up and over my head. One last glimpse of Frank through a hole in the lip and I’m gliding out the back of the wave.
On the other side, Frank is not to be seen. He eventually pops up way down on in the inside in the white water. Slowly, gingerly, he makes his way back out. His right cheek is bright shiny red as he bleeds from a slice just below his eye.
The boat ride back this time is a bit more animated. Stories begin to be told. Laughs are shared. Frank bleeds.
Shower. Appetizers. Dinner. Sleep. Rain pounding on the tin roof. Frank stitched himself.
A bell is ringing. A rooster is crowing. It is still dark out. Crashing surf rumbles across the reef. Slowly, I blink sleep out of my eyes. The sky begins to lighten. I hunt around for board shorts and slaps. The air outside is trying to hold onto the nighttime coolness as the sun begins to poke above the palm trees on the far side of the river.
Huge clouds tower over the jungle. The sun climbs higher and they fade; pink to orange to white. The temperature begins to climb. Sweat rolls down my forehead as I watch the sun continue to climb. Hunger rumbles in my stomach. The camp begins to stir. I track down some OJ and wolf down some muffins. I’m not sure what is in the muffins but they are tasty and highly addictive.
The sun is getting higher. The humidity is getting higher. Everyone is getting ready to jump into the boats. A few moments later and we’re off, putting down the river. We get to the sandbar and a villager is fishing. Swinging a huge bamboo pole out towards the waves lapping on the beach. He nods and waves as we glide by heading out to the channel through the coral heads.
The swell is still weird. Bumpy. Confused. The size dropped slightly during the night and yesterday’s heaving death barrels are not to be found.
We hook up on the mooring and boards go into the water. I hang back and watch, not entirely sure it is worth it to dunk the camera. The right is softer this morning. More crumbly. A bit more of a shoulder. A little more room where I might be able to play. I throw on fins, leave the camera and roll overboard.
The current is still screaming even with the smaller wave. I start a slow lazy swim as it pulls me out towards the reef. I stop and drift getting a feel for how the water wants to move, how the water wants to move me.
I start to play. Getting on the edge, peeking over, gauging the drop. The speed of the wave is amazing. The drop is steep even out here on the shoulder. The next wave comes and I hurtle myself over the edge, sliding down the face, flying across the top of the water. I see the reef coming up to meet me. I feel the whitewater catching up behind me and it is time to exit. A flick of the wrist, a duck of the head and I’m underwater suspended in blue as thunderheads roll over me.
I swim a bit more and head back to the boat. Slowly, others start to grab their last waves of the morning.
As we make our way back up the river, villagers are coming out of the jungle to the water’s edge. They wave as we motor by then continue with their dishes and laundry.
A few hours break which consists of trying to find the coolest, breeziest spot in the camp. The hammocks win.
After lunch, we head back out front to the right. It’s cleaner and slightly bigger than the morning session.
Waves unload on the reef creating maelstroms of whitewater. Gingerly, I make my way out to the impact zone. The water is still churning, heaving and pushing me around. A set comes. A blue wall rises and blocks out the sky. As I get under the wave, I realize two things that I hadn’t really paid attention to yesterday or earlier this morning. The reef is very, very shallow and the underside of the beasts rolling over me is fascinating. The imagery tugs at me. I spend some time taking photos of people duck diving and fins slicing through waves.
The drum beats for dinner. Appetizers are served. Fresh tuna sashimi. There’s a feeding frenzy and in minutes, the platter is clean. Dinner comes out moments later. Tiana insists on pulling out my chair and placing a napkin on my lap. Another fantastic meal. Again, I’ve eaten too much.
I manage two pages in my book and I’m out cold. It rains and rains hard. The pounding of the drops on the tin roof momentarily drowns out Mike’s snoring.
Morning comes. The rooster is crowing again and the bell is ringing. Board shorts, slaps, OJ, muffin. A second muffin. I start to think about a third but I’d rather not sink when I get in the water. I mix it up deciding to sit in the boat to shoot with the 500. It’s still bumpy. A few barrels come through but it has gotten inconsistent. I shoot a bit more, switch boats and head back to camp.
The sun is still low in the morning sky. Something about the light and the view of the jungle up the river calls to me. I pack the dry bag with a camera then grab a kayak. Slowly, I make my way up the river.
Just past the camp, squeals of laughter coming rolling through the trees quickly followed by two small boys. They see me and stop. They look like brothers and throw me a big smile and wave. I wave back. The boys call up the trail they just ran down and point at me. Their father soon emerges and calls out, “Good morning!” I answer back. The boys giggle and hide behind their father’s legs.
“What’s your name?”
“Sean. Who are you?”
“Joe. It’s good to meet you Sean.”
“Good to meet you Joe.”
“Where are you from?”
“Are you enjoying Samoa?”
He bends over and picks up his jug of water that has finished filling in the river, “Enjoy the rest of your stay Sean.”
“I will. Thank you.”
The boys giggle and wave and run up the trail ahead of their father. In moments, they’ve disappeared in the trees but their laughter is still filtering down to the river.
I continue paddling and realize that I forgot a picture. Damn.
Up the river, the jungle closes in, unbroken along the banks as far as I can see. It feels as though I’ve gone back in time. Maybe I have. The water becomes too shallow for me to paddle any further. I’d get out and walk but I’m barefoot and Nick freaked me out with the snails in the river bottom. I spin around and let the current take me back to camp.
Lunch comes and goes. Another fantastic meal with way too much food.
The afternoon brings a mission. We’re in the boats heading out to The Island. The boats hug the coast and we’re flying along slicing the neon blue with white ribbons of foam. Huge stretches of coast look completely uninhabited. Nothing but unbroken jungle right to the water’s edge. Not a person, fale or cooking fire to be seen. It is stunningly beautiful. We round a bend and the island comes into view. The boats turn off shore and make their way through the coral heads.
The water has become a deep dark blue. The whitewater gleams in the afternoon sun. The Island radiates green. I look up and a huge barreling wave is wrapping itself around the reef. I hear a few gasps and whistles behind me. People are talking behind me but I hardly hear them as the beauty of the place has sucked me in. I’m off the boat and swimming.
The sets roll in and explode on the reef. Most of the people from the boat are drifting towards the outside shoulder where it is smaller. Safer. Some of them are a bit out of their element. Ross, a charger from New Zealand, takes off late and pays the price. He paddles by me on his way back with some love bites on his back from the reef. Another from our group, Jim, takes off deep and finds a beautiful line into a huge barrel.
I look up just in time to see a huge cleanup set closing in on my head. I start to swim but realize I will not be able to make it. I dive and come within inches of the reef. My ears pop, signifying quite a pressure change going on over my head, and the water vibrates. The whitewater clears and I’m heading towards sunlight.
John, a boatman for the camp, catches the next one. He surfs really well which is what happens when you live here.
A few minutes later, something huge looms on the horizon. It starts to break way outside and everyone is caught off guard. I start swimming and dive early. Pressure lays its fist into my back. My ears pop. It goes dark. Nothing but bubbles. Seconds tick by. I surface in seething whitewater. I catch a breath just in time to get under the next one. I’m diving blind into the whitewater, a hand outstretched before me, wondering where the reef is hiding. Whitewater boils around me. I surface, look around. No one. Behind me, down on the reef, heads start to pop up out of the foam.
The tide is falling and the sun is beginning its descent. The boats make their way back to camp. Hawksbill turtles drift lazily by in the shallows. Smoke from cooking fires begins to rise out of the jungle.
Another day is drawing to a close but it is happening much too quickly.
Stay tuned for part two of A Samoan Adventure in Adventurist Life’s next issue.