Monday, June 23, 2014

Another tale of old Samoa - Pago Pago i le Po - Pago Pago Harbor at Night

Tropical Night Magic
      The perfume of night-blooming jasmine slipped through the corroded copper wire window screens of the house by the bay. Its sweet aroma almost masked the combined stink of sour mud and fish oil wafting across from the cannery less than half a mile away across the water.
      Perched several feet in the air on sturdy posts, the house had a rocky front yard just six feet wide, ending suddenly at a stone wall that dropped a few feet to the waters of the harbor at Pago Pago. The kitchen window faced away from the bay, only inches from the paved road that skirted the deep, L-shaped harbor.

      Directly across the road stood an old two story building known in the 1960's as the Max Haleck General Store. Many years earlier it had been the Haleck Hotel. Somerset Maugham had tarried there for several days, watching torrents of water sheeting down from low-hanging clouds, inspiring him to write a tropical tale of Sadie Thompson and rain.
The night was warm and humid. Unlike the stifling hot summer nights of a big city, soft tropical breezes flowed into the harbor from the southeast tradewinds of the open ocean, gently caressing moist skin.
      Lights from across the across the bay bounced shimmering reflections through the open front of the house, dancing across the ceiling of the darkened living room. Just outside the door on the side of the house, standing in the small grassy yard, I could watch a slow-moving light soaring away from the low hill on the side of the bay, gaining altitude as it hummed along a thick steel cable. The small hanging gondola swayed slightly from side to side as it began the steep caternary swoop toward the towering black wall of Mount Alava and its red-winking transmitter tower. From that high point TV programs beamed out across the island of Tutuila and over the 75 miles of open ocean to the islands of Ofu, Olosega, and Ta'u, a day's journey by boat toward the east.

      Retrieving a long, pointed Samoan paddle from under the low steps where I had stashed it, I stepped barefoot across the rocks. Reaching under the house, I grabbed the curved bow of my paopao, a fourteen foot long outrigger canoe. I lowered myself over the edge of the stone wall into the shallow water of the bay, moving cautiously in my flip-flops so that I wouldn't cut my feet on the jagged oyster shells that covered the bottom. A quick tug, and the narrow wooden canoe slapped down onto the water.
      Hewn from a single log, the paopao hull was perhaps a foot and a half deep, but too narrow to sit inside. A short board set atop the gunwales served as a seat. I dipped the paddle into the water, and found the shallow bottom just a few inches below. A couple of shoves with the tip of the paddle sent the canoe gliding out across the coral shoal and into deeper water.

      I paddled along the waterfront past the boat shed and the main dock where freighters unloaded goods and occasional cruise liners disgorged hoards of silver-haired tourists intent on bargaining for carved wood souvenirs and shell leis in the few hours ashore before heading off again toward some other south seas port. The lights from the government housing along Centipede Row cast sparkling paths across the black water. Passing the oil dock, I could smell a pungent mixture of diesel oil mingled with the sweet smell of the blossoms of the pua trees that grew on the grounds of the Rainmaker Hotel.

      Looking south, away from the lights of Fagatogo on this moonless night, I could see the black silhouette of Rainmaker Mountain against a brilliant background of thousands of stars and the faint double smudge of the Magellanic Clouds. The five stars of the Southern Cross pointed toward the mouth of the harbor and the ocean beyond.
As I turned again, I could feel the long ocean swells raising, then lowering me, gently urging me back the way I had come. I glided along the eastern side of the bay, skimming the surface of the smooth ink-black waters.
      The tip of the outrigger began to glow with a faint eery blue-green light. It pulsed each time the paopao surged forward, suddenly leaping around the paddle with each stroke. Now it brightened, sparkling like thousands of bright watery stars, swirling galaxies of light suddenly flashing into being and fading away in the glowing wake.
The phosphorescence stayed with me for most of the return trip, escorting me back to my starting point, leaving me with a lingering sense of connection with the whole Universe.

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