. . . Friday February 4, 2005

Crossing the Road with Chickens

Why did the chicken cross the road?

That question is far less theoretical in Savaii (Samoa’s less populated, but very large island) where roosters and hens regularly guide their relatives across the main road creating a virtual crosswalk on which they are joined by piglets, cows, horses, dogs, kids chasing errant volleyballs, and boys and men returning from a day of jungle harvesting with their meter-long machetes in tow.

But before my wife Gina, her parents (the natives) and I got to the chickens crossing Savaii’s main road, we first had to get to Savaii. The most common way to travel between these neighboring islands (Upolu and Savaii) is by ferry. Getting a ticket to the ferry is a distinctly Samoan experience. One is required to purchase a vehicle ticket (you drive right onto the boat) on one end of the island, while the tickets for the passengers who plan to be in the vehicle during passage are purchased nearly an hour away where the ferry departs.

We had a two-hour wait at the ferry station where we made quick friends of several kids who were hawking their village wares. One group was selling banana chips for a tala (about 40 cents) a bag while a couple of barefoot boys were using long knives to hack the tops off of coconuts to make instant island drinks.

click any photo for a better version

I took several photos of the children and they giggled endlessly when I showed them the instant digital versions of themselves on my camera’s view screen. My mother-in-law wrote down the names of the kids and their nearby village so that we can send them some print-outs of the photos once they’ve been processed.

On the boat, we met a Britney Spears t-shirted girl named Mountain and her family. I broke out my wife’s iPod and portable speakers to crank up a tune from Britney’s greatest hits, but Mountain shook her head indicating that she had no interest in listening (which I took as a hopeful sign). Instead, Mountain and her little cousin joined the rest of their family who, to avoid the sun, were stretched out on straw mats underneath a pick-up truck. The strategy seemed a bit odd, but there was no questioning the goal. Throughout the ferry ride, I had reclined in our rental car with my left arm resting on the window sill. But the time our inter-island passage was complete, the area between my elbow and wrist had turned to a red so bright I could’ve used it to direct air-traffic.

When the ferry docked, we drove our cars ashore and took advantage of the only driving directions given to us by Gina’s Uncle George: Make a right. With only one main road, those directions should really have been enough. Yet through a series of mind changes, odd decisions and disappointing accomodations, we ended up driving for about six hours – and it only takes about four to circle the entire island. For locals, we went from Saleloga to Manase (where we saw Mountain in the back of her pick-up truck and were informed by her father that we had passed our initial destination more than an hour ago) back to Tuavisi (where we realized we didn’t actually want to be) and then all the way back past Manase to Vaisala Bay. For those non-locals, imagine driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles by way of Seattle.

If you’ve got to drive out of your way, this is the place to do it. Savaii is like a deserted island without the hustle and bustle.

There is no main town. The journey around the island could not be more picturesque as one drives though a series well-manicured villages each with a backdrop of either ocean or jungle. As we drove by, everyone from kids playing on the side of the road to boys shouldering a long stick with a bunch of coconuts on each end to the shirtless, shoeless machete wielding gardeners looked up, smiled and waved hello. In fact, the same folks waved hello each of the three times we drove by that afternoon.

Life on Savaii operates at a pace that is even slow by Samoan standards. Sitting by the side of the road looks to be considered a fairly common pastime. A child’s life in Savaii starkly contrasts that of an American kid being picked up from school and swept off to lessons and other activities until bedtime. When they’re not working, the kids here entertain themselves by swimming, watching the cars pass, working in the garden, playing a game in the front yard (one girl was playing a solo game of tetherball using an empty bottle of detergent on the end of a rope) or pretending to push a companion in front of a car speeding by on the main road (Samoan humor).

About five hours into our journey (after an incredible sunset), darkness fell and the rains came. Gina’s parents signaled for us to pull over so that they could warn us how to behave if we accidentally ran over a hen or a piglet on the darkened road. Keep driving, they explained. The villagers can be quite temperamental about such things and might beat you first and ask questions later.

By this point, my stress level started to rise a bit. The fact that my father-in-law was driving along a pitch-black road with no turns anywhere with his left signal on didn’t help. I was focused on the road and feverishly gulping down round after round of my Palagi cocktail (Imodium and Gas-X washed down with swigs from a Costco-sized bottle of Pepto Bismol).

We finally arrived at our beachfront fale at the Vaisala hotel late that night. Shortly after we walked down the slippery stairs to our just-rented room, the power went out. I suddenly felt like I was part of an island remake of the Blair Witch Project. The lights came on just in time for us to be greeted by our evening’s companions, a gecko, several mosquitoes and a flying cockroach. My wife and I held each other for dear life under our lone sheet – fully dressed in long pants, sleeves, shoes and socks – and remained awake until the warm sun rose over the horizon. We opened our door and through groggy eyes found that we had a large beach to ourselves.

Gina and her mom took a quick swim, but there wasn’t much time to waste. We had a long journey back to the ferry station where we were to head back to Apia and the air conditioned comfort of our hotel bungalow – which by this point seemed like the presidential suite at a Ritz Carlton.

From the Vaisala Hotel parking lot, we took another right so we could complete our journey around the island and avoid backtracking and compelling the same kids by the the side of the road to wave at us in our rental car yet again. By the time we boarded the ferry back towards Apia, my in-laws appeared as if they had enjoyed a quick but relaxing weekend getaway while Gina and I looked like we had just miserably failed an audition for an upcoming Mark Burnett reality show.

So why did the chicken cross the road? I don’t know. I’m just really glad we didn’t run it over when it did.

Concentration is important!