To Sua Trench: Samoa

My volunteer friend, Erica, had biked over to my village, Lotofaga in the Aleipata district of Samoa, for the weekend and I decided to take her to see Tō Sua Ocean Trench, an under-appreciated tourist attraction on the outskirts of the village. I’d been living in Samoa for nearly a year at that time, and Tō Sua was one of the first places my Samoan host family took me when I arrived at Lotofaga village – and I’d wanted to go back ever since.

About a 15-minute walk from my house, the trench is just a few yards from the coastline. A cave allows seawater to wash in and fill the very bottom of the pit, while greenery climbs down the sides. These days, a wooden ladder allows tourists to climb down and have a swim in the trench (you used to have to swim in through the cave).

A few yards inland is another trench with no water, Tō Lē Sua. The legend is that the spirits lived in the first trench until the ocean came in, then had to move into the other trench. And east of the trenches, through the brush is the great coastal lava field.

With backpacks prepared with water bottles and our cameras, we wandered over to the home of the family I’d stayed with when first in the village. I told Tauanuu, head of the household, where we were going and invited him and the family to come along. He told the boys Tautua and Sami to accompany us. Younger Lio watched from inside the house. “Sau!” I said, “Come!” his eyes lit up and he ran out to tag along.

Lio, eight, was the clown of the three, energetic and creative. Lio was always prone to spontaneous outbursts of song and dance (not terribly unusual in Samoan children). Tautua, Lio’s 12-year-old brother and the first-born, was good-natured, but more sober than his younger brother (“tautua” means “service” in Samoan). And Sami, their neighbor and friend, at 14 seemed to me the cool one, nonchalant and self-confident.

In addition to my own $10 entrance fee, I put in some extra cash so the owner would let the boys come along to the lava fields with Erica and I.

We all tramped through the brush then emerged where the black rock juts out into the sea. We took our time exploring all the various microcosms of life along the lava field. The black plain of volcanic rock looks barren from a distance, but every puddle and pool is teeming with life. Erica, a marine biologist, was delighted studying every nook and cranny.

Between the tree line on the shore and the lava field, sheltered by a cave that breaks the waves, a tremendous bed of pink, green and brown coral thrives. Smaller tide pools and caves are home to more coral, teeny neon-colored fish and fast-moving speckled crabs. A deeper hole in the rock maintains a hazy turquoise glow and houses pink and brown coral with vividly blue little fish swimming about.

As we explore, Erica and I indulged our childlike curiosity and sense for adventure, which seemed to be embodied in the three boys: tramping through the brush, clambering over rocks, chasing crabs.

Pointing into one of the holes, Lio says something about the dead people who eat the fish. I assume he’s referring to the spirits of his ancestors, and not zombies. The two older boys become excited and say there’s a huge fish over here in this little cave, but neither Erica nor I ever see it.

The tide was coming in, and the frothy white suds washed up over the rocks and elsewhere rushed out through blow holes. Lio comments something like bringing his soap next time.

As we wander around, I take my time, thoughtfully working my way around the sometimes slippery or jagged rocks, well aware that even at the age of 24, I do not possess the agility of the wiry Samoan kids, with their feet that seem to be soled with rubber. Although, Lio does at one point do a little jig on the hot black rock, saying, “Vevela!” Hot!

Each of the boys took a moment of meditative repose gazing out into the ocean. Another volunteer friend once remarked to me that while Samoans can have a rather haphazard approach to safety a lot of the time, they all pay due homage to the sea. Nearly every Samoan legend I’ve heard has involved the sea, particularly visitors arriving from distant lands.

The ocean provides plentiful fish, crustaceans and other favorite foods. The ocean gives cooling winds, but also destructive cyclones. From the ocean came (according to legend) Fijians with kava root and tattoo (still two of the most treasured symbols of Samoan culture), warring Tongans, and eventually European explorers (the papalagi or “sky busters”) and Christian missionaries. And about eight months after this visit, a devastating tsunami would wash over these very shores.

Standing on the edge of a tiny speck of an island in the middle of the Pacific, the power and beauty of the ocean can be awe-inspiring – even for three otherwise rambunctious schoolboys.

Eventually, we tire and schlep back up into the bush and have a rest in the shade, relaxing against coconut trees. The older boys are too polite to take my offer of cold bottled water, but after Lio has a drink, Tautua decides maybe it’s ok.

By the time we walk back to the trench, some Aussie tourists in beachwear have shown up. The boys are oddly anxious about this development at first, but I do my best to assure them that they have just as much right to be here as anyone else. Lio is then quick to begin making rude comments about the palagi lāpo’a (fat white people).

Erica and I climb down into the trench. The boys peer over the edge, but are less keen on venturing down into the deep pit, but eventually we coax Tautua to brave the steep ladder. We admire the tranquil water and green vines for a bit, then climb back out.

The five of us take a seat in a small, thatch-roofed traditional Samoan fale, and chat a minute with the landowner’s wife.

We all then take a few more minutes to quietly watch the waves wash on the shore below us before hiking back to the village.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.