Mapping the limits of the soul: Tutuila
S 14 23.274′ W 170 34.764′
Before we set out to circumnavigate the main island of American Samoa, Tutuila, I had thought it would be something of a disappointment. I thought I had seen a lot of the island, and which way things were going, from my trips ashore before we headed out to sea. How wrong I was!!
Don’t get me wrong! Tutuila from the land is a beautiful place. It is coconut trees and small villages. It is beautiful coastlines and winding shore roads. It is small islands of volcanic rock jutting up out of the reef flat, capped with a chaotic explosion of coconut palms. Its buses, even, are a riot of loud music and bight decorations. Its people are large and big-hearted. In short, it is a jewel of a place. But I thought it would, marinely, be a disappointment.
In one way, I was right. In all the other possible ways I was wrong!!
The reefs here are as nothing compared to what we have seen on our way down here. So I guess compared to perfection, I could say that they are not perfect. Or that after the apogee all is downward motion. And these statements would be true. Some areas of the reef here are quite pretty. Some areas are desolate wastes though. On one dive Cristi and I turned to each other and made an esoteric signal that asked what we were both wondering; ‘where did everyone go’. We were wondering about the fish. The coral. The complexity. The diversity. Pretty much everything. It was like a ghost town after an earthquake. It was all flat and eerily quiet.
But above the water, oh me oh my, Tutuila, when viewed from the sea especially, really brings its A Game! What we had on all the islands on the way here below the water, Tutuila gives to us above the water!!
I pity the fool (especially as they would probably be a government employee or graduate student, it sure isn’t Donald Trump who is going to get the job!) who seeks to make a topographic map of this island. I really hope they have a walking stick or helicopter or something!! This thing must be at least 20 times the size of God (to misquote Hunter Thompson) high! Maybe a more agnostic metric would a wildly overestimated 1.3 Everests high? I prefer the God measure because it is not falsifiable!! But aside from all that particular morass, this island is tall tall tall. And it balances on such a teensy tiny base! Think of Rubeus Hagrid wearing youth sized high heels, or a large goat halfway up a cliff stranded (ecstatically so!!) on a tiny outcrop of rock the size of a teacup, or an elephant standing on an ice cube. The ice cube would need to be surrounded by the luscious warm waters of my true love Pacific home though. You know that ice cube ain’t gonna last!!
Ice cubes and teacups and elephants and goats and Hargid and high heels will only get us so far in this though (although it might be a hell of a good time getting us there; and maybe a whole ‘nother blog post to cover that whole particular journey deep into the night!!).
So Tutuila is tall. I feel like I have proven that by now.
Imagine a tall island right out here in the middle of the Pacific. What does it add up to?
Cliff faces that will make you lose your mind in a vertigous whirlwind of giddiness!!
Slamming, spraying surf!!
Ickle baby islands that you dream to be the first person to colonise!! (How quickly the dream of visiting cute little islands turns to the optimistic intentional self-delusion of terra nullius!!)
In this photo of a waterfall (I am the dude in the wetsuit swimming towards it), the tiny sliver of darkness at its base is a human tall. I think that gives some sense of scale!!
This is how it goes out here:
You are wandering along the coast in a bright orange baby boat. You may be wandering at some speed, and with a good deal of direction, perhaps even heading to a known waypoint that is your next site. But to preserve the vibe of the thing, the essence of the wind in your hair as you pass villages shrouded in coconut palms and prominent churches, as it were, we shall say we were wandering. You come around a point or a corner, or just something that sets up new vistas. And a new vista is unfolded before you. Maybe you see a cute little bay, complete with a few luscious little cliffs, their black faces adorned here and there with some cheeky vegetation.
You become still to drink it all in, to fix the magic of this moment in your eyes forever, so that whatever you see from this moment on, you will always see this as well. You try to brand these treasures into your memory. The boat keeps skipping along (sometimes a little ploughingly, but let’s not get bogged down in details while we are soaring so high on visual splendor!!). You come out of your revery of fixing memory. You look forward, your thirst for beauty slaked by the cliffs drifting by on the starboard side, when you see ahead of you visual delights that make your last visions seem as nothing.
Your thirst for beauty becomes more dire with each satiation, and now you need to drink afresh!!
Ahead are towering cliff faces, smooth here, jagged there! To the sides, the land drops away startlingly abruptly to rocky beaches defined by palms and vines. The water is so blue, the vegetation so green you could cry. But that would obscure vision, and you are much too smart for that! This is about seeing and embracing the moment to moment overwhelming by beauty!
The boat moves on.
The next view thrust upon you unprepared is of blue and white (such crisp colors!!) waves crashing with geologically-manic suicidal glee into black cliffs!! The waves have carves seacaves from the rock at the water line. They have undercut the land. Usually this is a vision that makes you reflect how, one day, one sweet day, the ocean will reclaim all the land as its own! But today there is no time for that, you need to start staring and fixing all this before, poof! it is gone and you are around the next corner!
Here the swells are bigger, they smash into the undercut cliffs, exploding back upon themselves, exploding into the air up the cliff as they spend their force in the place where the immovable object and the irresistibile force collide!! The seacaves fill with water. In the lull between successive waves, the ocean draws back, and the seacaves become waterfalls, the rock faces perpetually running with seawater as gravity calls it home to the sea. Explosion. Waterfall. Explosion. Waterfall. This is the cycle where the sea is uncutting any possibility of negotiated truce with the land. The sea acts out of unbridled and restless strength, and the walls the land surrounds itself with, those futile parapets, are falling!
It is time to seek the shelter of a small bay. The cliffs close around you, the swells calm, the air is still and hot. You see the coral reef below you through the calm bright blue waters, conveying no estimate of depth in their clarity.
That is Tutuila.