Thursday, May 5, 2011

Grand Samoan Adventure Grand Finale Part 1: Arrival

There are currently two airlines that fly from PPG airport to The Independent State of Samoa™, Polynesian Airlines and Inter-Island Air. Polynesian lands at the recently-restored old airport near Apia, right in the middle of the island of Upolu. The ferry wharf to Savai'i would be a 30-minute taxi ride away. Inter-Island lands way down at the much nicer airport that's right next to where the ferry to Savai'i leaves from. Not a hard decision who I should be flying with.

Or at least, it shouldn't have been.

Inter-Island doesn't have online booking. Fair enough, I called the phone number on their website and was told that the Saturday that I wanted to fly was fine, but that I'd have to come in to their office in person and bring my passport to actually book the flight. Fine, I'm used to this sort of thing by now. So I tell my boss I'm going to be in late the next morning, drive over to their office at the airport, wait in line for a good 30 minutes to learn-

They're not flying on Saturdays. That's the day they do maintenance.

I walk over to Polynesian's office, do a lot of panicked running around that I can't recall the reason for, and then book my flight with them. A few hours later I realize that I've booked a less-than-ideal itinerary and have them change it (they did this for free, which is good enough customer service that it almost makes up for the last time that I flew with them). Miraculously, I was still able to get another flight, despite all of the people headed to Apia for the Jazz and Blues Festival.

A few days later, its time to leave. I'm all packed and ready for this trip, and mostly packed for the final trip home that will be only two days after I return. I've left a good old-fashioned "Let's go exploring!' as my Facebook status, setting the tone. I have my good friend John Raynar drop me off at the airport, where I see:

It says "Inter-Island Air" on it, if you're like me and usually too lazy to click these images to see the big versions.

That's right, the airline that I had been told I couldn't fly with that day had a plane all ready to leave when I got there. The guy at the check-in counter didn't have a clue, but the people in the Inter-Island office said that due to the demand caused by the Jazz & Blues Fest, they decided to skip out on maintenance and schedule a flight at the last minute for Saturday anyhow. That's what I get for trying to plan out a flight a whole week in advance on the Rock. I don't think I want to fly with anyone who's been skipping out on maintenance anyhow.

Anyway, I weighed myself with my luggage by stepping on that giant scale one last time, checked in (but knew better than to check a bag with Polynesian), and got ready to go. My Polynesian flight to The Airport that I Don't Want to Use went off without a hitch. I got some great pictures, because they don't care enough to make you turn off electronic devices:

Taking off. You can see Maliu Mai Resort by the sand.

Leone from above. I honestly can't tell what's a real building and what's a foundation left bare from the tsunami.

Approaching Upolu

Aggie Grey's Hotel in Apia from above. This is where I stayed with my parents when they visited in Summer 2009.

Click to see a usably big version.

I had a rough outline of my trip planned out: Land at Fagali'i Airport near Apia, take a taxi to the wharf, take a ferry to the village of Salelologa in Savai'i, spend the night at this awesome-sounding inn specially designated for backpackers like myself in that village, spend Sunday traveling to the very back of the island and seeing everything that I could, watch the "last sunset" from the western tip of the island (called this because its about as close as you can get to the International Date Line and still be on land), spend the night in a beach fale back there in the village of Falealupo, spend Monday seeing everything on the way back to Salelologa, spend Monday night at the backpacker's inn again, and then take the ferry back first thing in the morning in order to get back to Fagali'i in plenty of time for my 4:30 PM flight back to AmSam.

I grabbed a taxi right after we landed and agreed on a fare to the wharf ahead of time, like the travel guides recommend (he still managed to rip me off). Had him stop at an ATM to pick up some Samoan Tala (One Tala was worth about 44 cents American at the time), and at a store to grab some sunscreen and bug repellant in a spray bottle roll-on dispenser, both in odd New Zealand packages. Apparently, I could have brought both of those things on the plane with me, because flights out of a US territory aren't subject to much security, or something like that.

We arrived at the wharf and there was a boat sitting there already. There was a lot of confusion, because the taxi driver spoke about 60% English. But going by my watch, there was still plenty of time until the ferry that leaves at 2 PM was supposed to get there. I had plenty of time to grab lunch and relax by the pool and beach at the nearby Aggie Grey's Resort (not to be confused with the hotel in Apia, though its the same company). I grabbed a free tourist map and some more Tala from the ATM, too. (Cash is very important to have in a society where almost no one has a credit card reader) Life was good.

I rode in the same taxi back to the wharf, paid the driver entirely too much, waited around for the ferry that seemed incredibly late, and got on. This was on the brand-new MV Lady Samoa III, a rather large ship that has nice, almost airplane-like seating, a "business class" section for people willing to pay more for a tiny bit more comfort on a 90-minute ferry ride, and a TV that entertains the passengers with American Idol reruns.


Sitting there, I looked at my watch. It was almost 3! Could this ferry that was supposed to leave at two really be a whole hour behind schedule? The next ferry, assuming it was on schedule, might get here before this one ever leaves. Even for Samoa, that was pretty bad.

Then it hit me: My watch was an hour off. The ferry was right on schedule.

Western Samoa had switched to Daylight Savings Time since I had last visited, and American Samoa never did. My watch had been an hour off the entire time. And since BlueSky only covered American Samoa, my cell phone still had Am Samoa time on it as well.

I may or may not have been able to cram in one extra activity with the two hours I would have saved, but maybe not. The important thing was that I was riding on the ferry and would still get to Savai'i my first day, as planned. If fixed my watch, enjoyed the (most likely pirated) onboard videos, watched the view from the deck, and relaxed some more.

It's practically a national holiday when the big ferry arrives in Savai'i.

I arrived and grabbed a taxi, asking him to take me to the Salafai Backpacker's Inn. He'd never heard of it. Not knowing what else to do, I guessed he could take me to an Internet cafe where I could look up the ad where I spotted it and figure out where it was located. But first, and ATM stop, because I would have to pay for my room in cash. Then I spotted the "Salafai Inn" along the road and made him turn around to get me to it.

We pulled up and there was no one at the front desk. No one anywhere. The whole place seemed deserted, but open. Not exactly the happenin' youth hostel that I was expecting. Finally, someone who worked there turned up and confirmed that yes, this was also the Salafai Backpacker's Inn. I thanked them, paid the taxi driver, learned from the clerk that I paid the driver too much ($5T instead of $3T, a difference of about 88 cents American), and had her take me to my room. The ad for the inn had said that there was air conditioning, a refrigerator and a TV for just $50T a night. As it turned out, the TV was only in the lobby, and if you wanted the "Backpacker rate" of $50T, the mini-fridge and A/C would stay unplugged. Also not what I was expecting.

Oh well. With the ability to finally, finally keep my backpack full of stuff safely behind a locked door finally mine, I left it out of my sight for the first time that day and ventured out of the hotel into the village of Salelologa.


All the stores and restaurants are closed because it's a uh...Saturday.

Also not what I expected. I had always been told that Savai'i was a naturally beautiful place, full of adventures to be had and was completely unspoiled. But Salelologa was just like the worst parts of American Samoa- just developed enough to completely lose its "unspoiled" status, but not developed enough to have any real man-made enjoyments or comforts. I walked around and saw that the restaurant that they had recommended to me at the hotel was closed on account of it being not open. I got dinner from a roadside stand selling barbecued chicken, hit the ATM again because this village was the last one I would see for a while with an ATM, and headed back to my room. The whole hotel was still creepy, creaky, old, and almost deserted. The room across the hall was taken, and I'm pretty sure that was it for the entire two-story hotel.

Everything about Savai'i so far was so...not what I had expected. The Backpacker's Inn was nearly deserted, the Backpacker's rate wasn't that great of a deal, the village was a dump, I had forgotten how almost no one spoke adequate English in the entire country, and worst of all, I was alone. Not just alone, but "a whole day's journey from anyone I knew or even anything familiar" kind of alone. What was I doing here? And why was I doing this so close to my trip home?

I fell into a troubled sleep, hoping the next day would be better.

Scratch that, I had no A/C, so I ended up messing with the window to the extent that only I could, stacking the thin mattress from the extra bed on top of the one I was using to double my padding, considering turning on the A/C even though I hadn't paid for it, and finally knocking myself out with one of the sleeping pills that I had brought. Then I went into a troubled sleep, hoping the next day would be better.

You can see a more complete photo album of the day here.
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