My travel day to Samoa started as so many trips seem to go: with a cancelled flight. With each minute that my rescheduled aircraft was delayed, I could feel dread creeping from my stomach to my throat. It’s been three hours and I’m already ready to be there! I’m never going to make it! It was dramatic.

The short flight from San Fransisco to Los Angeles, once begun, went seamlessly. Although I hate the LA airport, I do love flying into it, particularly at night. The sun has set and all you can see in the blackness are the densely populated streets lit with circuits of lights. It reminds me of a neural pathway. (Did I mention I was a Psych major?).

My next stop was Fiji. It was a 10 hour red-eye that I atypically slept through in its entirety, so while I cannot report back on Fiji Airways or its passengers, I can say that they distributed the coolest coral-colored, island-design blankets. Thank you for the souvenir.

Mariah Nogueira lands in Samoa for her TBLI trip

It was midday in Fiji as I waited for my last connecting flight into Western Samoa. (Note: The country is now referred to as Samoa, so that’s what I will use in this text moving forward. American Samoa will refer to the other island.) My anticipation really started to peak, partly because I was so physically close, and partly because of a shift I felt in the airport. It was fairly small, and I waited in a lobby that had only one little food shop in the corner, run by a Fijian woman selling popsicles and sodas. The people around me sparked familiarity and excitement. They were almost solely brown-skinned men and women in floral-printed dresses or shirts with island tattoos poking out on exposed limbs. I tried to disguise my staring, as being around so many of my own people at once was such a change for me. It was such a strange feeling to be having both an in-group and out-group experience at the same time. I felt camaraderie with these random strangers, but at the same time an alienating difference. Do they see me as one of them, or do my clothes and obvious mixed-race complexion give me away as American? Do they just not notice me at all?

The flight from Fiji to Samoa was about 3 hours long and I was glued to my window the entire time. The contrasting blues and teals of the ocean were breathtaking. I could see the barely-covered reef formations skimming right below the surface of the water, the endless deep blue of the sea, the foamy white breaks of the waves, and the clear window to the sand below. I followed the shore to scattered dots of homes along the coast that sat at the foot of giant, lush, rainforest-covered mountains that filled the interior of the island. What a juxtaposition to flying into LA! Was that really all the same day? We landed yards away from the ocean on the airport’s single runway. The plane door opened and I walked down the steps and into a brick wall of humidity. The sun shone on what looked like an average blue hotel. I then realized that it was the airport.

Mariah Nogueira view from plane to Samoa

I had made it. I was here.

My grandpa had arranged for my ‘uncle’ Richard to pick me up from the airport. (Note: ‘uncle’ and ‘aunty’ do not ever mean my parents’ siblings; rather, it is a term of respect for older individuals that are related somewhere along the line, or are treated as such). I hadn’t seen uncle Richard in years and wondered if I would be able to recognize him. I walked out of the terminal doe-eyed, scanning for any sign of familiarity as eager taxi drivers tried to solicit rides. Then I spotted him: big, tall, and bald with a smiling face. I immediately knew it was uncle Richard as he walked toward me.

I only had one day in Samoa before traveling to American Samoa and I was determined to do the Lalotalie River Walk that I had heard and read much about. The only information I had with me, though, was a screen shot of some directions from an email that was sent to me. I already felt underprepared. My uncle looked at me like I was crazy for wanting to try this, but he very graciously asked for directions from some locals anyway. As they spoke, I recognized familiar sounds and intonations of a language I had never learned and tried to match them with the winding hand signals used. If you had asked me right then, I would have told you that we had to go up two hills and/or mountains and then wind around for a bit. I asked my uncle if he understood where we had to go and he just shrugged as if to say: “We’ll figure it out.” I’m a pretty laid back person, but uncle Richard was a whole new level of chill.

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The drive took 45 minutes. We were on the south side of the island and I was struck by the extreme change in scenery and lifestyle. The road followed the coast, with ocean on my right and villages on my left. The homes were pretty spaced out and open. I learned that they are called “fales” and consist of a cement foundation, rising pillars and a roof. Everyone seemed to be outside. School kids walked home unbothered, holding hands in their uniforms, and adults lay in the shade of their fale, fanning themselves with tear drop-shaped straw fans. Then there were all the dogs, mostly strays, that ranged from being as laid back as my uncle to being as fearless as a guard dog roaming the streets territorially.

Samoa waterfall climbing TBLI Mariah Nogueira

We arrived at our destination and were greeted by a shirtless man, naturally tanned and toned from the land. His name was Olsen and he was closely followed by his wife, Jane. I learned that they were native New Zealanders who had moved to Samoa years ago and immediately, I was overwhelmed by their hospitality. Olsen carried my bags into their home and Jane brought out some cold water and a freshly made fruit smoothie, offering me bananas from one of her many trees. I can still taste the sweetness of it all. Three dogs lay lazily on the floor of an outside patio and a curious little girl climbed over. Her name was Coco and I was instantly drawn to her, perhaps because she reminded me of myself, hair knotted from playing outside, running and jumping around like a little monkey. I had only been there for ten minutes and yet I felt like I was a part of their family.

I finished my food just as Olsen wrapped a red bandana to his head and grabbed a machete and some walking sticks. We headed out into their backyard where the river walk began along with their son, Iele, and one of the adventurous dogs who trailed behind us. I quickly learned that advertising this experience as a river walk was grossly misleading. I would have called it a trek, hike or excursion; for the majority of our 5-hour walk, we traveled upstream through the river. There was no path or trail, the water was our guide. I initially scoffed at using a walking stick, but soon realized that it was a good and loyal—and necessary—friend.

We walked through the jungle. The foliage rose up beside me like skyscrapers, not a soul to be seen or heard. I heard the heavy rush of water as we made it to our first waterfall. It had three tiers of falls that landed in tiny pools, each leading into the next. The only way to get to the top was to climb through it, and I watched Olsen’s steps carefully so as to follow his foot and handholds. All I could think was: ‘Don’t get hurt. Your coach and teammates will kill you.’ There was about a 20-foot drop to the base of the falls but that didn’t worry me; what I was most afraid of was how deep the water was. Olsen jumped straight down and for a second I couldn’t see him. Then, he poked his head out from the water and encouraged me to follow suit. Relieved, I didn’t think twice. I jumped.

Mariah Nogueira TBLI Samoa trip waterfall jumping

The fall was exhilarating and I felt an invincible rush of adrenaline as I pierced the fresh water, the falls raging inches in front of my face. We jumped a few more times from varying heights and climbs. It was exactly how I had wanted to spend the first day of my trip. For the next couple of hours, we followed the same pattern: hike, climb, jump, swim. Each waterfall uniquely beautiful.

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As we swam and explored, Olsen recounted legends of the Samoan people and the river, while Iele sang behind me in Samoan. Iele didn’t speak much, but every time I turned to look for him, he magically appeared fifty feet ahead of me or halfway up the face of a waterfall, about to backflip off. The ease with which he navigated the jungle could only be described as complete athletic grace. I even envied the dog, lightly jumping from rock to rock, matching each of Olsen’s footsteps. I couldn’t help but stop every once and a while to just look around, or close my eyes and be fully present. As a religious person, it is often in nature that I feel a closeness to God. The seclusion and the feeling of immersion in the world as it is naturally intended makes me feel like there must be a higher power that has created this. Being there in the jungle, surrounded by waterfalls, truly felt like a gift.

Mariah Nogueira waterfall Samoa TBLI

We arrived at end of the hike where there was one last jump. It appeared to be about fifty feet high. I had jumped off of a lot of things in my life, but this put them all to shame. Olsen went down first, screaming with joy, his spirit that of a teenager. My legs shook as I thought of all the things that could potentially go wrong. Then, without even looking or thinking, I jumped. I fell and fell and fell, finally hitting the water with gusto. It was awesome. Olsen used the word “malo” once I resurfaced; it has many meanings, but in this instance it meant “good job.” The positive encouragement and expression of approval made me feel like I was earning my stay.

As we began our trek back to start of the path, I stopped to take some photos. By the time I got back to the top of the mountain, I had lost Olsen and his son. For the first time, I was completely alone. I wandered around different paths and realized how easy it would be for me to just disappear. I felt small and inadequate. This beautiful land that I had been enjoying all day could swallow me up and the river would flow just the same. Fortunately, Olsen doubled back and found me; I had gone in the complete opposite direction. We walked the rest of the way back to his home as the sun set over the ocean.

Sunset in Samoa from Mariah Nogueira's TBLI trip

When we got back to the house, Jane refueled us with bananas. Coco joined me on the patio yet again and asked probing questions about why I had traveled to Samoa and what life in America is like. Finally, Jane and Olsen offered to drive us back to our hotel. We piled into their car and Coco sat in the back with me. She put in a CD of 5 year-old American songs and I smiled and sang along. Jane and Olsen continued to recount stories of their life journey and of the island as I looked out toward the ocean. I rolled down my window and stuck my head out, breathing in the island air. The unpolluted, cloudless black sky was dusted with so many stars, it was as though they had formed a canopy over us. I had never seen so many stars in my entire life; they literally went all the way to the horizon line. It looked like there was less empty space than light, and some clustered so closely together that I couldn’t distinguish them from one another. In that moment, I really didn’t know how this place or this day could get any better.

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6 / Part 7 / Part 8

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Mariah Meaalii Nogueira is half Samoan and half Brazilian, and was born in Huntington Beach, CA. She graduated from Stanford University in 2013 with a bachelor's degree in Psychology and is currently a professional soccer player in the National Women's Soccer League.