The last day of my trip had come. I couldn’t believe how fast the time went, and I was excited for some of the final things we had in store.

We started with a trip to Black Sand Beach. Following signs, I made a turn in the direction of our destination and spotted a frantic teenage girl running after our car. It’s funny how the saying “running around like you own the place” applies so literally here. We paid her apologetically and continued on our way. We were off-roading for about 15 minutes through wheel-high mud before the brush finally cleared, revealing a beautiful private beach. I sill can’t believe that so many of these places are generally uninhabited, though I do appreciate the lack of crowds. Because I’ve developed a habit collecting sand from the places I visit, I grabbed a water bottle and filled it with the unusual black sand for which the beach was named.

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Next, we stopped at the Coastal Walk. The 1.5-mile hike was very welcomed after some of the other more treacherous treks I’ve endured during this trip. The trail was tourist-friendly and followed the southern coast of the island. There were several lookouts right on the edge of the cliffs and I could see little islands just off the shore. The path ended at a black lava field and when I looked out, it seemed as though the horizon continued on forever.

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Our final stop along the coast was the To Sua Ocean Trench and I was so excited. If you were to type ‘Samoa’ into a Google search, a picture of this would be the first to come up. I couldn’t wait to see it for myself.

I imagined the trench to be tucked away in the rainforest, only accessible after an arduous hike; but again, it was only 100 yards away from a local family’s home. At first, I was disappointed – it was surrounded by a blue fence that really detracted from its natural beauty – but then I ventured inside. A wooden ladder descended into the pool and to a small dock. It was low tide and the water was the coldest I’d felt since being here. It’s not until I was in water and looking up and around that I realized how vast this trench really was. Foliage grew right to the edge and draped down inside. The sun shone in on me like a spotlight. It started to rain, scaring off other tourists, and for about 20 minutes I had the whole thing to myself. I floated in the cool water, doing circles on my back and watching the world turn through this lens that the trench created. When the sun reappeared, I lay on the dock and just soaked it all in. Inside, it was easy to forget about all the people and movement and bustle above. For a brief moment, I felt like I was in a fairy tale world that was all mine.

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My favorite part of the trench was an underwater cave that I had read about. With my snorkel gear in hand, I ventured over and dove down to survey the situation. I saw a light in the distance at what I perceived to be the other end of the cave but had no idea how far it was or what was really on the other side. I feared getting stuck or running out of breath. More than that, though, I feared the unknown. Yet, I decided to pray for the best, take a deep breath and dive.

When I emerged from the other side of the cave, I was in the ocean. Wow! I hadn’t seen that one coming; looking back at where I had started from, there was no indication that I would be in open water. I wondered who had discovered that secret entrance; I’d like to shake their hand.

I swam back over and enjoyed the trench a little more before tourists started trickling back in. Being there was a strange paradox for me: on the outside, it wasn’t the natural wonder I had envisioned, but the moments that I had alone inside and under it made it the serene space that I had hoped it would be.

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We were staying at a surf camp that night and by the time we got back there it was about 7pm. I was determined to paddle out before we left, but somehow, they didn’t have a board available. How do you teach surf lessons without a board?! Three other residents were milling about, playfully heckling one of the workers in the hopes that he would boat them out for a session. I piggybacked along, wanting to at least get a nice boat ride and watch them surf. Turned out they had an extra boogie board and some fins for me. Awesome! We all piled in and rode out about 10 minutes to the break, where we anchored and jumped out.

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Back home, I typically long board on 2-3 foot waves, maximum. I’m all about that long, slow ride. But that’s not a Samoan wave. These were 4-6 feet high and broke hard and fast. I was scared. I bobbed past the break for a bit, watching the guys catch barrel after barrel. I couldn’t just sit there all night, though, so I finally paddled into the lineup and went for it. Turned out I had picked the set wave – the biggest of the wave intervals – and just took off. I rode the face of the wave, straining every muscle in my body to stay left but it was too strong and sent me barreling before I could straighten out. I’ve always wanted to get barreled, but not quite like this. I got rocked and came up panting; one of my fins had even gotten tossed. Woah. I paddled back and to my surprise, all the guys threw up a shaka hand sign in approval. Apparently it looked a lot cooler than it felt and they loved my reckless abandon.

The four of us sat waiting for the next set and as we did, I turned to see the most beautiful sunset of the trip. It was one of those where the sun hides behind a cloud and you can see each ray distinctly beaming out from behind it. How fitting that it was my last night. It was the perfect end to the perfect trip.

Or so I thought.

In the middle of the night, I woke up to a familiar and unwelcomed feeling in my stomach. I ran over to the outhouse and spent most of the night alone on the bathroom floor. This had to be rock bottom, I thought. Ironically, I had spent the whole trip eating authentic, local food. Then, for my last meal in Samoa, I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner at a neighboring resort and became violently ill.

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I set up my ENO hammock and lay in it as the sun rose, hoping that either the sun or the hammock would have magical healing powers. Unfortunately, they did not. When it was finally time to go, I slowly packed up my things and crawled into the car in the fetal position, avoiding all stimuli as we drove to the airport. I had to survive a short flight to Fiji and an 8-hour layover before my final leg back to the United States.

An 8-hour layover, mind you, that included one final adventure: skydiving.

A friendly man from Skydive Fiji met me at the airport and brought me back to base. Awful timing; all I could focus on was my pain and discomfort. He suited me up, gave me instructions for the dive, and drove me over to what looked like a toy plane. My tandem jumper probably thought that I was really nervous, but I was honestly just trying not to be sick on myself – and him.

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I had jumped once before, so I knew what to expect. It was a rainy day and as we ascended into the sky and above the clouds, I watched the colors change from dark and gray to bright and yellow. The pilot found a pocket in the clouds and my partner opened the side door. Before I knew it, I was falling.

Skydiving is much more enjoyable the second time around (I was too busy freaking out to appreciate it the first time). I loved the experience of the free fall and of getting to see the world get bigger and bigger as we rushed towards it. Plus, diving over a beautiful island sure beat the brown mountains of California. I even forgot about being sick for about 3 minutes!

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When my feet finally hit the ground, it was time to head to the airport. The airline staff handed me an Ebola screening form to fill out – symptoms they were looking for included fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and body aches – and I had a mini panic attack. I was pretty confident what I had was just a stomach virus, though. I checked my bags, boarded my flight, and stared out the window one last time. Then, it was lights out for me all the way until I landed back in America.

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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.