Travel Writers: Adventures in Samoan Mass Transit

by Jeremy Norton

Location: Apia, Samoa, Pacific Ocean

The bus lumbered around sharp corners as it climbed into the hills above Apia, Samoa. The driver clearly possessed a six sense, which allowed him to see through the seventeen bobble head dolls lining the front dash, and the thick red shag that encircled the front windshield. Decorative pineapple lights, which were poorly spliced in to the lighting panels, ran parallel down the interior sides of the bus, perfectly matching the mood set by the reggae music blasting out the surprisingly excellent speakers.

There is nothing common about public transportation in Samoa. I noticed this as soon as I climbed on to the bus labeled Queen Suzanne, which, by rumor, was supposed to take me up to the Vailima Estate, the last home of Robert Luis Stevenson. The seats and walls are all wooden, which can be uncomfortable because the shocks appeared to be wooden as well. Every bus is outlandishly decorated to match the tastes of the driver, which always means lots of shag, Bob Marley posters, and things that bounce when the bus strikes a pothole, which is frequently.

Samoa is the only place in the world I have been where the local term for “foreigner” is not derogatory. “Palagi” in Samoan means “descended from heaven.” After boarding the Queen Suzanne, I immediately noticed that it was packed with people, bags of flour, and a few chickens. Upon seeing me, the passengers immediately responded. Bags were shifted, children were taken onto parent’s laps, and one young boy even lowered a window and sat on it, with his legs inside the bus, and his upper body outside. I now had a prime seat at the front available, with a great view of the drivers exquisitely decorated dash.

I tried to politely remain standing, but ten sets of hands told me otherwise. I sat in the recently vacated seat, uncomfortable with all the attention. The man next to me sensed my confusion, and explained. In broken English, he told me “All of our foreign visitors are guests of honor. We always find seat for them. No matter how crowded bus is, you always get sit.” He then proceeded to ask me about my family back home, which is always of great interest to Samoans. The love to hear about other peoples families.

The bus ventured further towards the home of my boyhood idol. Occasionally, we came upon on a Samoan riding a bike. Now, it is well known that Samoans are quite large. With that impressive size, comes a distinct inability to maintain a good center of balance on a moving object. Even without pressure, they proceed slowly and unsteadily on bicycles. When they are surprised by the loud horn of a Rastafarian bus, they jerk the handlebars violently to the left and right, and plough head first into a tree.

The first instance of this I witnessed, I was startled and stood up in panic, wanting to stop and help the cyclist. The chorus of laughter around me, and the wide grin of the bus driver in front of me, told me that this was not an accident, but a pastime. The next crash I witnessed was a man into a picket fence, and my tepid laughter was rewarded with smiles and a pat on the back from my fellow riders.

A week later, in a rental car on the island of Savaii, a short blast from my horn caused a Samoan teenager to swerve into a pile of discarded coconut shells. My friends stared at me in horror as I laughed gleefully. They did not understand as they had not yet been introduced to the sport.

Text © Jeremy Norton 2005, All Rights Reserved.

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