I spent my second night in Samoa in a treehouse.

All of my childhood dreams and sketches could never have come close to dreaming up something as awesome as that place. It was called Lupe Sina Treesort and was on top of a mountain, in a clearing; a single Banyan tree rocketed up and chandeliered over and through a quaint green home. The home sat a couple of stories up with a bedroom, loft, and two balconies that looked out over the jungle and ocean below. The owners, Jack and Carol, told me that it was built around the bathroom, which is literally in the tree. I can’t even explain it.

I woke up early to watch the sunrise. It was so quiet and peaceful. The sky changed to pinks and oranges and yellows until the sun finally emerged from the trees. Carol brought over breakfast and I ate on the outlook deck, observing the panorama of thick, vivid trees and feeling like Simba when Mufasa tells him: “everything the light touches is yours.”

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It was time to catch my flight to American Samoa. Everyone told me that I would be flying out of Fagalii Airport, but I was pretty positive that I was booked out of the international one, Faleolo. Chaos ensued. I had no Internet and couldn’t check my itinerary, nor could I make any phone calls. And even if I could, I wouldn’t know what number to call. I got a hold of my uncle Richard from Carol’s phone and he told me to taxi into the city of Apia; I could meet him there and he would take care of it.

It was true: somehow, uncle Richard was able to change my flight to one that originated from Fagalii. He drove me there while I stared out the window of his car, admiring the suburbs. My eyes followed a pattern: market, store, fale, fale, coconut stand, gas station. Wait, not a gas station; the airport. I tried to act composed as I brought my bags up to the one weighing station. Words were exchanged between my uncle and the airport worker, who was a relative of some sort, and then he grabbed my bag. He pointed to me, then to the scale. Silly me, I had forgotten about my carry on! Nope, I was wrong. I belonged on the scale. With planes as small as the one I was about to board, they needed to make sure that it wasn’t too heavy and that all weight was distributed evenly. The airport worker handed me my boarding pass, a blue and white sheet of paper with my first name, flight number, and seat number scribbled in pen. Was this legal? I thanked my uncle and hugged him goodbye as I walked through the lone door to the lone waiting area of the lone gate. There was no security.

The plane was a puddle jumper. It was awesome. It seated 20 people and I could see right into the cockpit to observe what the pilot and copilot were doing. I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of putting such big people into such a small airplane. It was shoulder-to-shoulder of sweaty people from wall-to-wall.

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I landed in American Samoa and walked out to find my grandpa waiting for me. I call him Papa, and he is joining me for the rest of my trip. Papa was born in Fagasa, American Samoa and moved to America when he was 19. We’ve always been very close and he’s been wanting and trying to show me his home country since high school. I was so excited that it was now happening! After grabbing some lunch, he took me to his home village. Similar to Samoa, there was one road that traversed the the island along the coast. Little roads jutted across and up the mountains and to the other side. Because Fagasa is right on the other side of the main city, Fagatogo, we traveled up the mountain and then descend with a view of the bay. At the outlook, papa stopped the car and proudly announced: “This is my village. It is beautiful.” The rest of the way, he told me stories about how he would walk up the mountain and across the island both ways every day to go to school in the city. Barefoot. In the snow.

(Ok, maybe not barefoot in the snow, but it definitely felt like one of those kinds of stories.)

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Papa was right; the village was beautiful. The bay created a U-shape within the mountains and the village was right on the water, built up into the hill. About half of the land belonged to my family and I was literally related to everyone I saw. My grandpa explained to me that family all live together; homes were about twenty yards apart and sometimes three generations live together in a household or within walking distance of each other. That was a light bulb moment for me. Papa had lived with me for much my life, until he remarried and moved two miles away. My mom, dad, and I always joked about how we would often come home from being out and Papa would just be sitting on our couch. Family is so central to the culture and it begins with the fact that people all live together. His geographical and emotional closeness to me all of these years came from this deeply ingrained lifestyle that I was finally getting to see first hand. Looking around, I also noticed raised cement graves on the land. I learned that families bury members right there in their backyards, not only because the land is theirs and, therefore, free, but because it also allows the family to continue to be together. I thought that was a cool intricacy.

Papa had one request for me before the trip and he was very sheepish about asking. He said: “Please, Yaya, please don’t wear the short shorts when you’re in the village.” He was referring to my soccer shorts that I spend the majority of my free time sporting. The Samoan women dressed very conservatively, usually in traditional ankle-length skirts or dresses, though sometimes more casually in basketball shorts or what are known as “lava lavas.” Those area made of a cut of material, usually with an island print and bright colors, that you tie around you like a sarong. To my great delight, Papa presented me with two lava lavas. I wrapped one on and felt ready to go.

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I was quickly shuttled through the village, hugging and kissing relatives but never staying too long. Papa told me they were planning on throwing me a big BBQ in a couple of days, so I would have the opportunity to see them all there. Finally, we reached one of the village chief’s homes and settled in for some dinner. It was another blast from the past to my younger years: Aunty whipped out Ramen noodles, a can of Vienna sausage for each of us, and a side of Doritos. To drink, we had “orange juice”, which was really Sunny D. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had a meal like that, but it was so classic of my childhood. I would often eat those very things when I got back home from school.

As the sun set, I decided to walk out to the shore to feel the water and cooling air. No one was out. How strange, I thought; it was so nice out and it seemed like everyone typically spent their time outdoors. It wasn’t until I got back that I learned that I wasn’t really meant to be out. There was a curfew bell that rang and everyone was supposed to be inside with family for an hour or two until it rang again. Oops! Regardless, I enjoyed skipping rocks, collecting seashells, and attempting to crack open coconuts until the sun went down, the warm water kissing my ankles. It was a really nice, relaxed day getting to observe and learn about Papa’s village, the customs, and the people. I couldn’t wait to explore more.

The next morning I awoke eager for a run. I walked outside to the most vibrant double rainbow stretching from one side of the bay to the other. I had never seen where a rainbow ends before so I ran right over, but the locals must have already stolen the gold! I continued running, heart rate pumping through the roof. I was sweating buckets and there were hills everywhere. At the end of the run, I jumped straight into the ocean. How amazing it would be to do this every time I train; no more gyms or indoor tracks.

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I arrived back at my aunty’s home to another familiar breakfast: fried spam, boiled eggs, and Samoan pancakes called “panikeke.” Papa and I then drove the coastal road to our next accommodation, Tisa’s Barefoot Bar in the village of Alega. While driving, I found myself really curious about the abandoned buildings that littered the island. I convinced Papa to pull over so I could explore one. It was beautiful, with overgrown vines and trees claiming residence in the decaying home. I even found an old school Nintendo! Finally, we made it to Tisa’s, dropped off our bags, and headed out to hike the Mount Alava Adventure Trail.

Apparently Samoans are not big hikers. My grandpa had no idea where to find the trailhead and neither did many locals, who gave us suspicious looks when we asked for it. We drove up a mountain and eventually found it: a two- foot gap in the dense forest with a small brown sign that said “Hike Trail” with an arrow pointing into what looked like a jungle abyss. I gave Papa a rough estimation of how long I thought it would take me to complete and told him that I would meet him back where we were.

Five minutes into the hike, the rainforest gave me a wet welcome and dumped thick, heavy drops on me. The rain didn’t let up for a good two hours. The first portion of the trek was straight up the mountain with a barely visible and poorly marked path with tree roots as foot holds. What had I gotten myself into? I was soaked and slipping everywhere, but it was worth every puddle. Good thing I wore my waterproof Tretorn boots! Plus, I remembered that the cursed rain was also the nourishment that created the greenest moss and fullest leaves I had ever seen. Giant frogs leapt along to keep me company and encourage me to keep going. Just as I was about to turn around and go back to where I started, I turned a corner and reached the most breathtaking overlook to the city and ocean. I could do this. With rejuvenated spirits, I finished the hike, grateful to have found sporadic ropes and ladders to climb when the trail was too steep.

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The end brought me to the village of Vatia, and I emerged into someone’s backyard. I had gone whole hike without falling and then with 50 feet to go, I slipped and slid the rest of the way down in the mud. Classic. A bigger problem: the point that I had reached wasn’t where I told Papa to find me and I was supposed to have been there half an hour earlier. My legs shook in exhaustion and I had to channel some serious self-talk to keep moving. I knew I wouldn’t make it just by walking, so I decided I would hitchhike. Unfortunately, no one was leaving the village. I prayerfully sat at a bus stop, willing one of the local buses to come by. As I was just about to give up, a truck drove down the mountain and asked if I was Mariah. Papa was waiting for me. The driver put me in the bed of his truck, charitably gave me some Bongo chips and fruit punch, and drove me back to my Papa. What an adventure.

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I got back to Tisa’s with just enough time to rinse off before the traditional “umu” dinner. It was prepared all day and cooked on hot rocks, covered with banana leaves. There was fish, pork, chicken, squash, palusami (coconut cream and taro leaves), and breadfruit, among other delicious and locally grown foods. We ate it family style with other people who were visiting (including professional ballroom dancer Tony Meredith!) as we all shared our Samoan experiences to date. We stuffed ourselves until we had no room left, then stuffed some more. I was so exhausted from my day that the delicious home-cooked meal was the perfect send-off straight into my beach bungalow. The sound of the waves hypnotically carried me into the night.

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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.