“Are you going far?” the Samoan man asked as he leaned into my creaky rental car. We were under the shade of an avocado tree. His bulk filled the entire space of my open window.
When he’d flagged me down, I’d thought he was an elder collecting a “customs fee,” the few dollars it costs to use village roads that lead to many of Samoa’s sights. He’d been sitting idly in a greying roadside shack built for such occasions, but he wasn’t asking for money; he was trying to hitch a ride.
I didn’t want to pick him up, but I’d already stopped and I needed directions.
“I’m trying to get to Pulemelei Mound,” I said, trying not to sound as lost as I was. “Do you know how to get there?”
“Mmm,” he said, raising his eyebrows in the classic Polynesian gesture for yes. “I need to pick up my car at the mechanic but no hurry, I’ll take you there first if you want.”
Normally I wouldn’t pick up a hitchhiker, especially not such a huge one, but this man had such a gentle expression that I sensed he was OK. Having spent 15 years in and around Tahiti, which has a similar culture, I knew Polynesians pretty well - many hulks had the temperament of bunny rabbits. Plus, if he knew where Pulemelei Mound was, I’d just gotten closer to living out a dream.
I’d wanted to go to Pulemelei since I’d heard it mentioned in an archaeology class years ago. The “mound” is actually a pyramid 40 feet high and roughly 200 feet across at its base—a little over one-third the height of the Kukulkan pyramid in Chichen Itza, Mexico, and slightly wider. Like many of the world’s pyramids, Pulemelei is oriented to the cardinal directions. It was built some time around 1300 AD and no one knows what it was used for. But one thing is certain: It’s the largest ancient structure in Polynesia.
You’d think that a giant pyramid would be a major sight, or at least something many people had heard of, but it isn’t. My accidental hitchhiker’s affirmative raise of the eyebrows was the most promising prospect I’d had in a week.
“Hop in,” I told him.
We rattled along the road in silence for a few minutes. A half dozen chickens squawked and ran into a hibiscus hedge next to an orange and blue house. The hot air mixed with a hint of smoke from burning leaves. In the distance, I could hear women’s laughter.
Then my new friend broke the silence and, simultaneously, my hopes.
“I’ve never been to Pulemelei,” he said as we bumped over a particularly big pothole. “It’s funny, I’ve lived here almost a year but I never thought of going.”
His arm hung limply out the open passenger seat window and he gazed with a half smile toward the bleached grey road in front of us. “Damn,” I thought, maybe he had no idea how to get there.
“Where are you from then?” I asked, trying to sound upbeat.
“I lived in New Zealand for over 30 years,” he said. “But I grew up in Apia.”
Apia is the capital of Samoa, so he was a city kid, not the earth-under-his-feet farmer I had assumed. The 30 years in New Zealand explained his fantastic English.
“Ah,” he said, “it’s here to the right.”
He pointed with his thumb towards an unmarked track. As I maneuvered the car onto the narrow, rocky trail, he sat leaning forward like an eager kid.
We bumped over the rough road till we reached a clear, calf-deep stream. We parked and got out, then waded across the water. Shortly beyond the river, the terrain became waist-high grass. The air was thick and smelled of wet plants. We picked our way through the brush, and my friend told me about himself. He was a church youth-group leader and was taking a bunch of local kids on a hike up the island’s tallest mountain the next day.
“Maybe I can bring them here, too, one day if we find it,” he said hopefully.
A fallen rotted tree blocked our path, and we tucked under broken branches and found our way around through brambles. We trekked on another a half-mile and I was feeling pretty skeptical. Then we hit an area of tall, lush grass surrounded by mature mango trees. A faded sign was nailed to one of the trees and I could just make out the word “Parking.” Yes, at one time, maybe 10 or more years ago and before the land disputes began (apparently between a foreign company and a local family), this road had been made for vehicles. People could simply drive here.
We came to another board on a tree that was nearly engulfed by skinny yellow vines. There, barely visible, were the words: “Pulemelei Mound 150m.”
We’d found it! In the hot shade, this realization barely seemed real.
The sign marked a dark tunnel of jungle and we hunched down to walk through. Right away I realized the thick vines were on the pyramid and we were going upward on the mound itself. Then the path opened to rays of sunshine, and the top of the mound was visible. We clambered over a dense patchwork of ferns and sticky lianas. And then, magic. We were standing on top of a Polynesian pyramid.
It wasn’t pointy, like some pyramids, but had more of basketball court-sized plateau. Below was a thick mass of yellow-green coconut palms that descended a slight slope, and beyond that was a faraway blue-grey sea. Two stubby mango trees grew out of some pushed-up stones and the rest of the plateau was covered in purple flowers and swarms of blue and brown butterflies. It made me want to frolic and chase butterflies, so that’s exactly what I did. I felt like a 10-year-old Indiana Jones.
My friend picked a few ripe mangoes, then sat under the trees and ate the fruit while gazing off with a look of contentment. He offered me one and I sat with him, enjoying the fresh sweetness as sticky orange juice ran over my fingers. Life was delicious.
After about half an hour I remembered I had a ferry to catch. As reluctant as I was, we had to leave. I signaled to my companion and we got up from our shady seats and made our way to the edge of the top of the mound.
Just as we were about to descend, he stopped, turned toward me and placed his big Samoan hands on my shoulders. We were face to face and I could feel the damp heat of his hands through my T-shirt as I looked into his creased, smiling eyes. In the most natural and subtle way, he leaned down and kissed me gently on the cheek.
“Thank you,” he said.
I knew the cheek kiss is a common form of greeting and platonic affection in Samoan culture. But his gesture, however sweet, made me acutely aware that I was by myself in the jungle with a large man I’d just picked up hitchhiking. The adventure had at once become deeper and lost its dreamy air of perfection. I wanted simultaneously to hug him to let him know I felt grateful and to get back to the car as quickly as possible.
We hiked down without talking. I sensed my companion had noticed that the cheek kiss changed our dynamic, but perhaps, like me, he wasn’t completely sure how or why. In a fog of cultural confusion, we got in the car silently, then trundled back out to the main road and found the spot where he needed to be dropped off.
When we were almost there, he said, “You know, I could use a little help paying for my car.”
I’d thought he might ask for money; people often do in Samoa. But it still hurt a little. He’d spent a few hours with me and I had been happy for his company. Again, I was stuck between two emotions: feeling stung by the way the experience had suddenly become yet another a monetary transaction, and honestly wanting to help this man out.
“How much do you need?” I asked.
He looked at me blankly. This wasn’t something he could answer.
I handed him a 50 tala note, the equivalent of about $17 US. It was probably too much but despite the awkwardness following the kiss, I wanted to thank this man for helping me achieve a dream. Paying him didn’t taint anything in the Polynesian sense, I knew. I had money and he didn’t. I’d just have to get over it. I’d had a pretty phenomenal day.
We looked each other in the eye once more before he left, in what I hope was wordless understanding. My friend looked happy - happy for the help paying for his car, happy to have discovered a special place and perhaps happy to have spent the day with a pleasant person from faraway. And this made me think: Even though we never asked each other’s names, our serendipitous trip together to a place lost and sacred would be with both of us forever.
As he walked away I thought, Thank you, hoping that somehow he’d hear me. In my mind, I stopped him before he disappeared. Then I imagined that I put my small hands up on his massive shoulders, stretched up on tippy toes and kissed him sweetly on the cheek.
Find the link to this story here.