Singing The Strait

Sailing the church.

Our week in Savai’i has come to an end. It’s Sunday morning. Tme to take the ferry back.

Thankfully we’re on the big ship again, the Lady Samoa III.

We arrive at Salelologa Wharf in good time, an hour before departure. A line of vehicles already queue along the road. We join the end and wind down the windows. The sky darkens and it begins to rain. We wind the windows back up.

Nothing much happens for a long time. Nothing much to look at either, only a builder’s warehouse roped off, a shop that advertises itself as ‘Pak ‘n Save’, and a small boy defending a fort of table and chairs. It rains harder and more vehicles join the queue, which now stretches half a mile. We wonder if they all hold confirmed tickets, and how many are chancers. No-one seems to be checking anything. Not every vehicle may make it onboard. We’re glad we’re not at the back.

The rain stops and the sun comes out. So too does the boy from the fort, taking a break from active duty to return home with his sister. Still no movement in the queue, no sign of any officials, nor the gates opening. We can see the ferry at the wharf; it’s been moored there the whole time. It’s nine forty and we’re due to disembark at ten.

Then with fifteen minutes to go, red lights glint on the car in front. We drive forward a couple of yards, and a man in a yellow jacket walks slowly down the line, checking tickets against names on a clipboard. We’re directed into lane four, on the wrong side of a large lorry, and far far away from the boarding ramp.

We watch with a mixture of disappointment and concern as all the cars that were behind us are marshalled onto the ferry. So much for getting here early, for being at the front of the line. Blue cars, silver cars, white. Finally the lorry too belches out diesel and lumbers up the ramp. And at last, it’s our turn. We are the last vehicle onboard, squeezed into the tiniest of spaces at the back, so hemmed in that the doors only open a few inches, barely enough to get out.

Somehow we manage to extract ourselves, scuttle upstairs and find a couple of yellow seats in the lounge. A large TV screen flashes in front of us, a documentary about the Ghan Railroad in Australia. The conductor and the driver enthuse about the passion of their jobs, then some of the passengers gloat on their ‘trip of a lifetime’. The train squeals out of Adelaide on time, follows a route north through eerie orange landscapes and scorched dry lakes, until thousands of kilometres later, it arrives on time once again at Darwin.

Meanwhile, we have not moved an inch. We sit quietly in our seats, the ferry still moored at Salelologa, even though it is almost half-past ten. Perhaps the captain is a big fan of Australian railroads. Perhaps he is waiting until the beginning of the next TV programme – a regular Sunday morning religious show with preachers and choirs.

A priest in a white robe appears on screen, exhorts us from a pulpit somewhere; the ship slips its mooring and grinds out to sea.

A calm passage to the reef, then the Lefaga Youth Choir burst into praise, wide-eyed, multi-coloured, chanting soulfully as the ship begins to sway.

The swell is strong today, stronger than when we came over. The singing on TV as well, as the presenter takes us on a magical madrigal tour of Samoan and New Zealand choirs: a school choir from Lalomanu, then the Hawkes Bay Community Choir, followed by another youth choir from Napier. Then ironically, the singing sailors of Devonport Naval Base. The palagis sing more complicated songs than the Samoans, yet the Samoans smile more than the palagis. It’s an odd mix of senses – feeling the ship bounce and drop in the waves, praying for safe passage, all the while watching television choirs sing their praises to God.

I realise we’re in a big metal church at sea, ensconced in our yellow pews and compelled to look faithfully ahead. Outside waves break, the horizon pitches, but as long as we sing along, we are safe. Our captive congregation, here until the service ends, and we reach the other side.

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