Manono Island

Manono Island

As a single girl traveling alone the bars and clubs of Samoa were off limits. Although the country is largely safe, Aniva and Doriana, the women who ran the B&B I was staying at, both advised against going out at night. Doriana was single, in her early forties, and had escaped Italy a la “Eat, Pray, Love”. She ended up in Samoa in search of her roots and with an air of loss and grief, as if she was getting away from a terrible past. Her advice was firm. “Samoan women don’t go out. If you do, you will send the wrong signals and attract unwanted attention.”

Aniva took it upon herself to take care of me in a motherly manner. She showed me around town on my first afternoon even stopping for ice cream at a local shop. Born and raised in Samoa, she married a Scottish explorer and, together, they had started the B&B. All Lonely Planet reviews mentioned the husband who had since passed away. She was half as wide as tall, looking the shape of a barrel, and always sported the traditional Samoan flowery dresses. She often decorated her frizzy hair with bougainvillea flowers from her garden. The most endearing part was her quest to make sure I was taken care of, as if I was the daughter of a childhood friend visiting the islands. I would get local sweets for breakfast and invitations to try the food she was always bringing home from visiting relatives. Although I was skeptical about their safety concerns, their advise was confirmed on my first night in town.

I wanted to attend my fifth Island Night at the only chain hotel, today a Sheraton. This was meant to be a touristy affair, with fire performers and grass skirts, and an easy way for a solo female traveler to get some night entertainment in a safe environment. Plus I loved the Island Feast buffets that accompanied the sound of drums and the mesmerizing dancers.

The show was scheduled after dark so Aniva offered to drop me off. After the show, I had to take a cab, but I couldn’t be bothered to wait. The hotel staff said it would only be five minutes but I had learned that, in the Pacific, this could mean an hour and my map showed that Aniva’s Place was only a few blocks away. Even in the darkness of the inexistent city lights, I should be able to find my way.

Solo travel in Samoa with Aniva and Doriana

Aniva and Doriana

A few minutes into my walk, farther and farther away from the Harbor, the lights were dimming behind me and I was increasingly staring into the darkness. I was not yet scared, for there was nobody in sight, but I did find myself walking faster with every step. Suddenly, as I was waiting for the traffic lights to turn green, a car slowed down next to me. I tried to look calm and avoid eye contact. My right arm grasped my handbag harder. Then, I heard the car window slide down to a local lady on the driving wheel, a man in the passenger seat and a kid at the back of a red sedan. Surprised, but not scared, I turned my head to face them.

“Where are you going?” Asked the lady.

“Back to my hotel.” I said with a friendly but confident smile.

“A girl should not walk alone at night,” She quickly added, “Jump in, we will take you there.”

A long-list of random thoughts rained in my head, from whether I had updated my facebook status with my location to the possibility of being robbed in Samoa. “I should be more careful!”

She carried on. “My name is Felicia and this is my husband, Mike, and our son Oliver,” She spoke as if trying to convince me that they were not serial killers on the look out for a new prey but just a respectable family doing a good deed.

I followed my gut and my experience. If the population of the other four countries in the Pacific I had visited were to go by, this was just another moment where the kindness of strangers restored my faith in humanity.

“Oh! Thanks very much!” I exclaimed trying to look brave instead of cautious.

I opened the back door and joined Oliver who looked like a bright white smile in the darkness of his skin.

Their motivation for stopping by became apparent immediately: They were sophisticated touts. It took me by surprise. I was absolutely not expecting to be touted in the middle of the night in such a sleepy part of the world.

“Have you already booked your trip around the island?” She inquired as soon as the car set in motion.

Felicia looked plump and had bushy Afro hair that spread like an aureole around her head. Mike had not opened his mouth yet. He was half the size of his wife and let her do the talking

“No, I was looking at some of the brochures I took from the airport but have not decided what is the best way to explore the island.”

“You totally have to take a full-day tour to see it all, Samoa is so beautiful!” She went on to say, “Look at this brochure,” She handed me a creased A5 shinny leaflet, indicated a right turn and made her way into a side street. Oliver was staring at me in the rude way only kids are allowed. Her advertising efforts continued relentlessly for the entire journey. I promised I would think about it and call in the morning.

When Aniva found out what happened she was visibly annoyed at their touting techniques but pleased her advice about going out at night was confirmed. My hopes of a night out dancing the Samoan way had essentially vanished.

Island night

Island night

Until I met Carlos, my Spanish dive instructor.

Carlos was from Galicia, the Northwest part of Spain, and had been in Samoa for a few months. He was a country bumpkin, extremely kind and adventurous. Back home, he was a professional diver for a marine construction company so he was used to spending hours in the freezing cold waters at depths below the recreational levels. There was nothing to see at such depths, his job involved fixing broken parts of oilrigs or helping in the construction of new platforms. It sounded like a rather intriguing and taxing job to have. He could be spending over an hour at a safety stop just to decompress a twenty-minute dive. I asked how he ended up in Samoa.

“With the crisis in Spain, I lost my job. I found this one online and decide to take it.”

Being able to talk to him in Spanish felt like a warm welcome to Samoa.

I spent the days after I met Carlos diving, touring the many sights and sailing to Manono Island, where electricity only arrived in 1995. I did not book any of the tours that Felicia offered, Aniva organized a driver to take me around instead, the Captain of the National Football team no less.

On my last dive trip before heading to neighboring Savaii Island, I convinced Carlos to join me for dinner in town. I had met another Galician couple in Vanuatu, two weeks prior, and I knew they were also in town.

Isaac and Paula were on their honeymoon. They had planned a five-week trip to fifteen countries, most of them in the Pacific, so we crossed paths in Fiji and Samoa after Vanuatu. Isaac had started a travel blog a while back and was methodically documenting everything.

Without phones or internet the only way to reach them was calling their hotel. I was in luck. They were taking a nap and were excited to meet another fellow Galician.

Lush interior of Samoa

Lush interior of Samoa

The restaurant was on an elevated deck, by the sea, and filled with red Coca-Cola plastic chairs. We ordered several international dishes and kept the cocktails coming. Laughter and good company took care of the rest.

Unfortunately, Paula and Isaac had an early start the next day as they were heading to Fiji so, with the cocktails doing all the talking, Carlos and I headed into town in search of an open bar.

As soon as we parked his minivan the reality of Samoan nightlife was apparent. There were a few scattered drunken men on the pavement, beer in hand, loudly chatting or arguing, it was hard to distinguish the two. The low streets lights did nothing to help the scene. The sky was dark, threatening rain, and the moon was almost new. At the time I thought it was probably a good thing that they could not see I was a girl.

We walked into a glassed dive bar with red lights and a live band. We could not be picky at the time, we had yet to shower or get changed from the day’s diving, and the place matched our looks: sticky floors, slimy loud men, prostitutes and dirty surfaces. We headed straight to the bar looking for a safe spot from where to watch the show unfold. Little did we know that we would soon become the stars of the performance.

There was a majority male clientele and a few girls dancing with fat, sweaty customers. Within a minute of being there someone came to ask me out to the dance floor. I thought he was kidding and immediately grabbed Carlos’ arm and made it clear to him that I had a husband. He did not give up, and Carlos’ laughter seemed to encourage the man. Loyalty was a loose concept in Samoa so I had to set things straight with Carlos.

“Listen, if anybody else comes to ask me for a dance, you have to look annoyed and make it clear that you are my husband and are not taking this bullshit.”

Carlos jokingly agreed, telling me that I should just try to dance with one of them, have the full Samoan experience. There was no way I was going to let any of those dirty, sweaty and frankly, quite scary, men touch me.

The situation repeated itself many more times. I held on to Carlos every time, he laughed harder with each try and the men did not seem to care I rejected every one of them. A husband was not an obstacle, it seemed to even be an encouragement.

Dinner with Galician

Dinner with Galician

Thankfully, when I was becoming suffocated by the attention, three kind men came to our rescue. They were 100% Samoan and looked as fierce and tough as anybody else in that bar. If I met them in a dark alley I would be scared to death. But, as soon as we joined their table, we were safe. They bought a round of beers, we laughed, we took photos and we had a great time just being silly. In their minds I was still a prized possession that made Carlos a “Very lucky man,” and they appreciated that he had got a large tribal tattoo inked on his arm.

A few beers later we had enough of the stuffy air and needed to get out.

“Let’s go to the beach to watch the stars!” I was euphoric.

The most beautiful night skies can be seen in the most remote of places and Samoa was high on that ranking. In his resignation, Carlos agreed to take me and to stop somewhere for food on the way. I was starving but our only option that late at night was a decrepit wooden hut manned by a sleepy man. We stocked on bright orange Fanta and chocolate chip cookies and headed to the sandy beaches on the southern part of the island.

Our saviors

Our saviors

The roads zigzagged through mountains, up and down, left and right. The interior of Samoa is a thick jungle forest lush with trees, dotted with waterfalls and permanently covered with low rain clouds. In the darkness of the moonless night we could not see any of that but I remembered the trip earlier in the week and could make the silhouette of the landscape in my head. Carlos could drive with his eyes closed. He used to go to the Southern coast of Upolu Island before sunrise to catch the first waves of the day against the outer reef before going to work.

When the engine came to a halt I was thrilled to lie down on the beach and stare at the stars. The pitch darkness in that part of the world made for the perfect conditions to spot the Milky Way. The starry sky was a sight to behold. And there we sat, drinking Fanta and enjoying the sound of the waves.

On our way back, I fell asleep with my bare feet against the windshield. Carlos woke me up when we got to my hotel. Half asleep, I searched for the front door keys Doriana had hidden for me and collapsed on my bed, fully clothed. It had been a memorable day spotting leopard sharks, dining with fellow Spaniards, dancing to Samoan music, downing warm beers with locals and ending up on a deserted fine sand beach counting stars.

Our drive to the beach

Our drive to the beach

The following morning, as I was leaving the house towards the ferry terminal that would take me to Savaii, I realized that, in the carefree happiness of the moment, I left my flip-flops at the beach. Life had been generally barefoot in Samoa so I had not noticed until I was about to get into the taxi. I lost a pair of flip-flops but gained a string of memories that were worth every penny.