Samoans smile at strangers. They are happy people. One reason for this is the sunshine. Another is that Samoa does not suffer trains.
Robert Louis Stevenson was welcomed for his storytelling and sense of adventure. Not so George Stephenson, Father of the Railways, and inventor of Stephenson’s Rocket. Nor Isambard Kingdom Brunel nor James Watt nor any of the pioneers of modern railway misery. Not even Paddington Bear came here, and Samoa isn’t so far from Peru.
Fast mechanised transport on rails might have seemed like the way forward at the time, but the Samoans knew better. They knew what was to come. The inhuman suffering that railways would bring, the thousands – millions – of victims who would be condemned to use it everyday, none more so than in Southern England where commuters now queue for trains that run at the same frequency as Ice Ages.
The Samoans decry motorways too. No multi-laned chimneys of carbon monoxide choking cars, no on-ramps nor off-ramps, no stop-start-thump-curse-commit-harikari trips on Fridays and public holidays, no back windscreen family score stickers, no camper vans, restricted drivers, Transylvanian vampires, nor traffic lights.
Actually there are traffic lights – but only at crucial junctions in Apia. There may well be learner drivers too, just we haven’t seen any.
There aren’t too many roads either. Not enough to publish a road atlas or inspire McLaren to shift headquarters. A coast road circles each island – and on Upolu, three cross roads transverse north to south.
We drove over on the Le Mara Pass road today, across the hills to To Sua Ocean Trench, a gigantic crater lake.
I’d seen photographs of this place before even leaving New Zealand. It’s so photogenic, so unique, it features heavily in any travel brochure. A vast hole bordered by thick tropical greenery, then twenty or thirty metres down to the water. Only a slim wooden ladder to make your way down.
Yes, that ladder. Vertigo-inducing just drooling over the brochure, so what would the real thing be like? I wasn’t going to leap from the top. I’d have to climb down.
As it turned out, at first glance the ladder was not as high as I feared. But still high. And slippery too, the rungs wide and wet.
For an eternity, I stared into the abyss. That platform stared back. And the water glared.
Yet the people down there seemed to be enjoying themselves. Swimming, laughing, holding onto a rope that stretched all the way across. They still had to climb back up, but that didn’t seem to be worrying them. Maybe coming up was easier – after all you didn’t have a choice.
The first step down was the most difficult. Waiting for people climbing up to reach the top. Staring down again. Then heart in mouth, gripping the iron handrails and levering my feet down. Onto the ladder proper, the rungs as slippery as they looked. Grip hard and don’t look down.
The second step came a little easier. The third was positively euphoric. I could do this, I told myself. No harder than painting the house. And clinging to each rung like it was a close friend – hand, foot, hand, foot – I limpeted my way down.
Shelve all thoughts of climbing back up. This was going to be one bloody awesome swim.