I met a lot of people on the sixth day of my journey. After my radio interview, things kind of blew up.

WiFi has been pretty nonexistent in Samoa, but I try to sneak over to McDonalds once a day for the free access. In doing that, I realized that FIFA, Samoa News, the local TV station, the Director of Sports, and the Olympic committee had all contacted me. I spent the majority of the day running around for meetings and interviews with representatives from the various agencies. I even got to meet the Samoan Governor! Access to those kinds of resources in America would never come this easily for me, and in meeting with everyone, I realized that my trip here is much more significant than I ever imagined. In fact, as it turns out, I’m the first Samoan professional female soccer player – ever. There are actually only two professional female athletes, period, and so being here is apparently a huge deal. What a blessing to have won this contest and been able to make all of these contacts. I already feel like there are so many opportunities for all who are involved now that lines of communication are open. I hope to be a liaison between the island and other athletes like me in the US.

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That night, the whole family planned on getting together for dinner. We drove over to the village and congregated at our “fale talimalo”, a large meetinghouse. These sorts of buildings can be seen throughout the island; they’re designated for large family or chief meetings, and for welcoming guests. Pillars hold up the roof, and each one is designated for a village chief, depending on hierarchy. I learned that there can be many chiefs within each family and village. Papa is a high chief. I never realized what that meant until I arrived here and saw how much respect both family members and others show him.

Typically, elders, chiefs, and guests sit in the main room; there is a back opening where the younger adults and children congregate. That evening, there were about 30 people there of all ages. We greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek and an exchange of “malo” – the word meaning ‘good job’ that I had learned on my first day in the country.

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I sat in the main room next to Papa and was given enough food to feed three grown men. After we ate, there was a more formal family meeting, almost exclusively in Samoan, that started with song and prayer. Each elder took a turn to speak and everyone listened attentively (except for the younger kids, who were uninterested and played around, sometimes bravely venturing into the main room). Then it was my turn to be addressed. One of the chiefs turned to me and, in English, welcomed me to the island. I held back tears as he explained that now that I am here, the family is more complete; he said that I am more complete as a result of being here, too. He expressed the pride that the family felt for my achievements. Finally, he explained that we never let the burden of any family member be too great, so we all must contribute in whatever way possible to ease the burdens of others. Earlier in the day, Papa had handed me money to give to the older aunties. They were collecting and counting cash, making markings on a piece of paper. Someone in the family was building a new home, and everyone was chipping in. I remembered times growing up when my mom would explain to me and my father that it was important to give money to others, even if we hardly knew them. I never really understood why, but being there and listening to that lesson described by the chief definitely gave me a better sense of its importance.

Papa turned to me and told me that it was my turn to talk. What? Why wasn’t I warned of this? I wasn’t sure where to start, so I turned to the chief that had addressed me and made my way around, thanking everyone for their warm welcome and their efforts to accommodate me in every way. My heart was pounding, but I think it was well received. There was more talk in Samoan, followed by more singing and praying, and then the night was over. We hugged and kissed and everyone asked when I would be back. That was a hard question to answer, especially after feeling the deep love and acceptance of the people here. I hope I’ll be able to answer them at the end of this trip.

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The next morning, I woke up feeling rejuvenated. It was a big clinic day; a day that represented the accumulation of all of the precursory legwork I’d put into this week. We headed to the soccer field, which was drenched from the morning rain. As was the case in the high school, I feared that no one would show up. Fortunately, about 25 school-aged girls did eventually make it, and when the FIFA heads handed me the microphone to begin, I turned to look at them sizing me up.

I started them with a dribbling drill to build on technique. It may not have been the best way to begin; although a couple of the girls engaged, most looked uninterested. One thing I’ve learned through my experience coaching is that any drill is better when performed in competition. I decided to launch some relays and jumped right in with them for the rest of the session. It caused a shift, and from then on, the session sailed. We worked on passing and shooting and spent the last half hour scrimmaging. I kept asking the girls if they needed water breaks but they always said no. Oh, just me? I thought to myself. Ok, cool. I’m the only one melting here. No worries.

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One of the things I have come to admire most about the soccer culture in American Samoa is the players’ fight and passion. The girls went into every tackle or 50/50 ball like it would win the game for them. Muddy bodies flew and slid everywhere, but they were always back up a second later. The field was lined with screaming and encouragement from the bench – supportive family members and high school boys – all of whom drove from their respective villages to the sole soccer field on the island to watch them play.

When I called the game to end it, the announcement was met with vehement disapproval. “10 more minutes! That was too short!” I felt so happy hearing those words. We kept playing. Finally, the FIFA director waved me down and forced us off the field. We gathered together to share water and Bongo chips (those cheesy puffs that are sold everywhere). The girls asked me questions and we took pictures together. It was definitely a success.

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One of the people that I had met that morning at the soccer field was the athletic trainer, Flo. She seemed to be around my age and as we chatted, I learned that her aunt owned the hotel that we were staying at. Flo was even planning to build a new home on that same land! She invited me over that night for a BBQ campout with some of her friends.

Of course, before going there, as had almost become tradition in 5 short days, I stopped to cool off and do some swimming and snorkeling. We arrived at Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which was just off of a back road on land owned by a local family. We paid $5 dollars per person and one of the family’s children unlocked a gate, giving us access to the bay. I trekked up a mountain a ways and eventually found the path that led down to the bay: a steep set of stairs that opened up to the appropriately named sanctuary. A small waterfall flowed over a tiny cave in the right corner, serving as a cold fresh-water rinse off from the ocean. A mother floated in the ocean waves while her kids ran around and her husband snorkeled around the rocks. I played with the kids for a bit and then threw on my snorkel gear before access to the bay “closed”. That was a relative concept: there was no one there to regulate; no lifeguards or buildings or visitors’ centers. Everything seemed to run on an honor system.

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When I finally reached Flo, the BBQ was underway. Flo’s truck bed was open, full of Maui chips, potato salad, freshly picked bananas, and pineapple juice. The car shone its headlights on a grill, where Flo’s boyfriend, Adam, cooked teriyaki chicken and hotdogs. His dog, Maverick, lay contentedly on a straw mat with us under the stars. Soft music seeped from the truck. Flo turned to me and offered me what looked like a fat bamboo stick. What do I do with this? What is it? Turned out, It was sugar cane. Woah. I gnawed on the bristles and sucked out the sweet juice, feeling like a panda bear. Flo’s friends shared stories in their English accents of their travels, and Flo gave us more insights into life on the island. She got a machete out of the car (because everyone here seems to own one) and sharpened some sticks to roast marshmallows.

As I’ve done before on this trip, I zoned out for a second of reflection. I thought about how this is my real life: I am not living a dream; I am here, doing all these things, with all these wonderful people. I couldn’t believe it. It’s indescribable, really; I just felt incredible peace and joy. The island and the people – and this trip – just continue to amaze me.

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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.