With only two days left, I wanted to make sure I saw as much as I could of the larger Samoan Island of Upolu.

We started in the main city of Apia. I always try to visit the Mormon temple in the places I visit, and so we made a quick stop there to check it out; each temple really has its own thumbprint. From there, we headed to do some flea market shopping, another one of my favorite activities when traveling. I love the hustle and bustle, and the melding of local artisans and people, the latter always haggling and turning things over as they exchange goods for money. The merchants in the market weren’t quite as in-my-face as others have been in different places (like in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, for example). Most of their shops were filled with brightly colored materials, straw accessories, coconut jewelry, and t-shirts. My mom was always a great haggler – I never quite figured out how she got prices so low – but she definitely didn’t get that skill from Papa, and I definitely didn’t inherit it from her. Bummer.

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Satisfied with my purchases, we ended out time at the food court. I ordered ten panikekes, a fried dough filled with chicken, and two cups of what was definitely the most deliciously unhealthy beverage I’ve ever had. It all only cost the equivalent of $2 USD.

With our hands and stomachs full, we made our way to the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve. I walked up to a little stand to find that, yet again, the land was owned by a family who sat watching TV in the shade. At first glance, I was unimpressed by the reserve – the tide was low, and I didn’t know if I wanted to pay the fee for what looked like a total bust. But I reminded myself that this is a ‘yes’ trip and allowed one of the younger children to guide me to reserve. Papa rested on a bench under a tree while I waded out into the ocean.

All of a sudden, about 100 yards in, the knee-deep water drastically dropped into a deep blue hole of about 80 feet. I put goggles on, started swimming, and instantly felt guilty for almost turning back. It was amazing. There were colored coral gardens swarmed with fish and sea urchins, everything reflecting shimmers of the sunlight. The fish were fearless; I swam amongst them completely undisturbed. One ambitious little guy kept nibbling at my ankle. My favorites were these turquoise schools that seemed to be a different color every time I blinked.

Before I knew it, two hours had passed.

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Next stop: Papasaeea Sliding Rocks. We asked several people to point us in the right direction but no one seemed to know where to find them. One person had heard of them before but told us that they were “too far”; I’ve come to learn that anything that is more than 10 minutes away is considered at too great a distance. Finally, Papa pulled over and consulted a young man; before I even had a chance to hear his response, he popped right into the backseat of our car. He introduced himself as Andrew and directed us to the rocks, even waiting in the car with Papa while I went off to explore on my own again. As I have become accustomed to, a woman greeted me in front of her house, charged me an entrance fee, and gave me access to the falls via her land.

To my surprise, there were other tourists there. I so rarely ran into other travelers on this trip, and it was strange to see crowds of people. They looked different than the local Samoans I had grown accustomed to seeing, and it was interesting to think about which group I belonged to; though a tourist, I have begun to develop an entitled feeling of belonging.

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The Sliding Rocks were not as I had expected. I thought that I would be able to slide over them and then fall into a pool, but instead it was more of a vertical drop, and the rocks weren’t smooth. I noticed that the water flow continued to a couple of other falls farther down and wondered why no one was swimming or sliding there. I ventured to the untouched waters and saw what looked like another potential slide. I was nervous, but it looked fun. I decided to take a risk and climb down, finally pushing off the rocks tentatively, hoping I hadn’t made the wrong decision. It was definitely the right decision. The ride was less steep and longer, ending in a shallower pool, but the exclusivity and the rush of the unknown made it more exciting than the first.

When I had slid and swam to my heart’s content, I met back up with Papa and Andrew and we all went to lunch. I liked Andrew; I appreciated the randomness of the way we had crossed paths, and the fact that he was so willing to help. I also admired the pride he had for Samoa. He said: “I love my island. I will stay here forever for my island.”

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I haven’t yet shared this in this posts, or even in my TBLI application, but my family adopted my younger brother from Samoa days after he was born. He’s now 16. My grandpa is the only person who has met his birth family. Before I left the US, my brother asked if I could try to find them and I wanted to do that for him. Our information on their whereabouts was limited, though. We drove to what we thought was their village, but Papa didn’t know their name. He asked around describing the family with the little knowledge he had. Finally, someone gave us a name and pointed us in the direction of where they thought we should venture. As we headed up a dirt path, we saw two boys. We stopped them to ask if they knew where the family lived; turned out, we were asking for their own family. I instantly stopped the car and we got out. Papa explained to them who I was and I watched as they turned to me, wide-eyed.

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I met the boys’ father and he was equally as surprised to see me. He then introduced us to even more of his sons and told us where to find the boys’ mother and sister (the parents are separated now). I became so emotional; they looked so much like my brother. It was a relief and so special to see how eager they all were to hear about my little brother and see pictures of him today. They shared that they have been trying to find him for years, but haven’t had the resources or the information to even know where to look. They told me that they have always felt like a part of them was missing.

Back in California, my brother sings in his high school choir and with an after-school performance group. Before I shared this with them, I asked if any of them sang. One of the boys smiled at me and told me that it was their gift. It was amazing to hear and learn all of these things that explained so much about my brother. Our brother. I asked them if I could record them singing so I could send the video to my brother and I had to muffle my tears. Even their voices and singing mannerisms were similar. They were so grateful that I had found them and excited to finally be able to reconnect. I tried to imagine my brother shirtless in a lava lava, climbing across the river to their home, and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. But what an amazing and surprising opportunity this was! We took a chance and asked around for information, doubting that we’d find any answers. But our prayers were answered – we had found them – and I couldn’t wait to tell my brother.

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When we left the family, we drove to our last accommodation on the island, Maninoa Surf Fales. It was pitch black, but I could hear Samoan drumming. I knew what that meant. I snuck over to the neighboring resort to catch the very end of a fire knife performance. I wanted to see more, so as one of the dancers ran off the stage, I asked if I could pay him to come over and perform for me and my grandpa. For 20 dollars, we got a private show on the sand. It was incredible.

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I planned a lot of things for my time in Samoa, but I think the things that I didn’t plan have been some of the coolest.

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.