When I stepped off the bus at the last stop of our day tour in Pago Pago, I had taken ten steps and one picture before a burly man sidled up beside me and struck up conversation.
“Hello, what is your name? You from China? Japan?”
Yes I’m aware of stranger danger, but this was a tour stop exclusive to the white people (and one Asian family . . . Konnichi-hao?!) off the cruise I was on. All the locals there that day were involved in the tour and island hospitality had been warm and welcoming.
My Happy Puppy alter ego responds very quickly to friendly people.
So I wagged my tail and replied chirpily that no, I wasn’t from China but yes, I am of Chinese descent.
The big man eyeballed me and broke out in a wide, white grin.
“You are very beautiful.”
At which Happy Puppy stumbled, ducked her head and shuffled away to take more photos.
Welcome to the village.
A large grassy field met my eyes as I walked under and past the painted welcome banner. Dotted on the edges of this green expanse were coconut trees and several small huts with thatched roofs. Masses of white plastic chairs faced a raised platform running down the length of the field. Tourists swarmed around me, hats perched on sweaty heads, cameras at the ready.
My parents found a wooden bench in the shade and once my sister and I saw to their comfort, we wandered off separately to take more pictures. It wasn’t long before an amplified voice announced the start of the cultural performance.
A brother and sister pair walked out to the front of the platform and greeted all of us tourists. I vaguely remember him giving himself the nickname Kiss. His sister batted her eyelashes and said we could call her Princess. Why?
“Because here on Pago Pago, the men do all the work. They look for food, cook, clean, build houses . . . we women just sit back and relax.”
“And gossip,” coughed Kiss. Princess glared at him and he shut up.
Ooh, the men ARE well-trained.
Princess and Kiss went on to explain how they got milk.
Two men presented themselves, dressed only in grass skirts, bright red hibiscus tucked behind their ears. One of them quickly scaled a nearby coconut tree, picked one and tossed it to his waiting companion. Coconuts were cracked open on the point of a wooden pole, and the outer husk was stripped off. Working deftly, the men scraped away at the inside of the coconut until triumphantly, they had a small tub spattered with white liquid.
“And this, my friends, is the milk we use on the island!”
Coconut milk. Santan, as we know it back home in Malaysia.
It’s extensively used in their staple diet: lots of coconut, breadfruit, taro leaves, fresh fish, chicken . . . The men then proceeded to build an umu, a traditional above ground earth oven. Alternating layers of firewood, hot river rocks and leaves were assembled into a pile. Balls of taro leaves with coconut milk at its core were laid on the umu before being covered up with more leaves. It would take upwards of an hour to cook meals using this traditional method.
Smoke wafted through the air as they announced that we would get to sample several local dishes that had been prepared the same way much earlier. Yay!
First though, I went wandering around the huts, where the process of building them was explained. How they used wood for its structure, leaves for its roofs and windows . . .
One hut had men grinding and pounding away at a black paste, which I discovered was to make a local chocolatey drink. It almost tastes like a Kopi-O, without the bitterness.
As more performances started up again, I finally got to the food stands.
The young man behind it gasped dramatically when I sheepishly told him I hadn’t tasted the food yet. He immediately picked up a square of foil and piled it high. I tasted breadfruit, chunks of tuna fish and chicken marinated and cooked in coconut milk, and taro leaves cooked the same way.
It was delicious. The chicken was tender, the tuna fish fell to pieces between my fingers to soak up even more of the coconut gravy, the taro leaves reminded me of kangkung.
Note to self: marinate everything in coconut milk from now on.
I continued nibbling away, watching as a group of girls swayed slowly in grass skirts. The dance was followed by the introduction of the Real Island Princess.
A pretty young woman strutted out into the middle of the field, wearing an eye-catching red-and-yellow feathered headdress. A similar belt was looped around her waist.
So this is what a Real Island Princess looks like.
I want that headdress. I will run around waving a headless chicken and screaming bloody murder at the top of my lungs at any man who mistreats any of my girlfriends / princesses.
Kiss announced that he would randomly pick men from the crowd and if they got his questions right, they would get a plot of land to build their own hut and live happily ever after in Pago Pago . . . but they had to work to find their own woman. The women just had to look for a single, available man she liked the look of.
“Aaaaand,” Kiss winked, “the men here are all single and available, ladies!”
The crowd cackled with laughter as jokes were tossed back and forth but I barely paid attention to this part as I was chatting with some of the locals at the huts. I never got to find out if any of the men did get that piece of land.
Finally, it was time to leave the village. On my way out, a group of men called out greetings to me, some of whom I had talked to throughout the day. I asked for a photograph of them and they huddled together as I snapped away with my iPhone. Then they pulled me over to take a group photo with them as well.
“Sit with me…” “No, me!” “No, in the middle of us!” “What is your name?” “She said it earlier…” “Do you have Facebook?” “You like Pago Pago? You stay?”
A booming voice sounded over the multitude of questions and tangled arms still clutching onto squirming Happy Puppy.
“Miss! We have to go back now, everyone is waiting for you!”
As the matronly guide Dina Brown ushered me back towards the rickety wooden bus, she put a fleshy arm around me and in a confiding tone, she whispered, “They’re all married, dear.”
At which I stopped short in horror. “I’m not interested at all!”
Dina just raised her dark, painted brows and went oh. I couldn’t tell if she was relieved or insulted.
Just because this guy I kissed once happened to be Polynesian, it does not indicate my future life plan to marry one and become an island princess.
But if you so chose, these are the steps you should take:
How To Become An Island Princess
1) Book a trip to Pago Pago, American Samoa.
How to get there:
- From Kuala Lumpur, fly to either Sydney/Brisbane (Australia) or Auckland (New Zealand).
- You will then need to fly to Apia, Samoa. Air New Zealand and Virgin Samoa service this route.
- From Apia, you can connect with Inter Island Airways or Polynesia Airlines to Pago Pago.
2) Pay a visit to the village.
3) Dress up in brightly-coloured feathers. Adorn yourself with as many flowers as you can.
4) Sit back on a sand-sculpted throne in the shade of coconut trees while glistening men fan you with large fronds.
5) Sip on a scrummy cocktail while your subjects shower you with adoration and gifts for your favour. (Shells are pretty but coconuts are useful.)
6) Enjoy the rest of your days singing, dancing, eating and relaxing in this bit of paradise.
Note to self 2: I should really rethink this whole island princess thing.
Do you have any dreams of becoming an island princess? Where would you ideally like to live or travel to?