I see it just before it charges, a gaunt, grey beast crouching by the roadside with ears pressed back and shoulders hunched in anticipation. I swerve to the far side of the lane and accelerate, snarling at the dog as it leaps to give chase. Melissa tenses on the seat behind me as we pass it, and I check the mirror to make sure it’s not gaining on us.
We crest the hill.
“Well that was…”
The unmistakable clatter and slip of gravel snaps my attention to the road, which has suddenly changed from sealed tarmac to loose gravel on oil. No signs, no warning, the visual difference had been almost impossible to tell…
None of that matters. I let go of the throttle and pray.
“I know, I know!”
The bike shudders and shakes as we drop down the gravel slope at 60 km/h, much too fast, much too fast. And ahead, a slight bend in the road.
Not like this, please not like this.
I fight the impulse to brake, to accelerate, to react. Shoulders tense and knuckles whiten, and I steer the bike ever so gently around the corner.
The noise stops as suddenly as it began. The blessed near-silence of tires on tarmac. We made it.
I laugh nervously as a shudder goes through me.
That was a close one!
Upolu is the smaller of the two main Samoan islands, but it is also the most populous. The site of the nation’s capital, Apia, Upolu is home to 75% of the ~200,000 residents (CIA World Factbook) and sees the majority of the tourist traffic. Savai’i — often called the ‘real’ Samoa — had a rough kind of innocence about it. Children smiled and waved, calling out random English words to any papaalagi who pass. Upolu… Upolu is like heading to back to the Metropolis after a weekend experiencing some good ol’ country hospitality.
We secured our wheels for the week and drove through Apia, the largest city in the country tiny by comparison to just about any other capital anywhere. Upon leaving the city, the road quality deteriorated rapidly, potholes and gravel patches breaking up the tarmac. Just like city drivers elsewhere, the drivers here seemed more aggressive, riding closer on our bumper until they sped past in a cloud of dust.
The first dog to charge caught us off-guard. Another backpacker had told us about being chased by dogs on Savai’i, but we’d been fortunate and had all but forgotten the warning. The motorbike riding in Samoa had been awesome thus far, and we were excited to see what Upolu had to offer. But a mouthful of sharp teeth nipping at your heels on a gravel-strewn road tends to dampen enthusiasm levels, and each successive ‘chase’ set our nerves further on edge.
And then the children. Every so often, a child would stare — eyes cold and mouth set in a frown. Smiles and waves went unreciprocated, and things were shouted at our backs as we rolled past. Then, one picked up a stone.
We’d heard about this too, but the kids on Savai’i had been lovely. The child straightening with stone in hand, however, had none of the smiling innocence about him those children had. His movements were furtive, and the gaze he had directed towards us was bereft of humor and filled with a cruel anticipation.
Our eyes met and I pointed at him, giving him my pissed off teacher expression and wagging a finger. He dropped the stone.
We drove on, and I felt my pulse racing. Our helmets were dinky little things, leaving our faces open. What if some punk kid threw a rock and hit one of us in the face?
The next one didn’t throw a rock. He made as if to shove a stick through the wheels. We swerved and I yelled out the most obscene name I’ve ever called a child.
After escaping the gray dog and nearly losing control on the gravel, our nerves are frayed. We descend from the highlands and find once more the coast, this time on the southern edge of the island. I pull over to check our course, and a young boy stops to stare at us.
“Lalomanu?” Melissa asks, pointing the direction we’re headed.
The boy nods, face blank. Then suddenly, his expression animates itself into an eager one, and he extends his hand to us. “Give me money please!”
We change the topic, and I try to get my phone’s GPS to home in on our position. More children stop — staring, whispering, laughing — and I can’t help feeling uneasy. Some of them shout, few of them are smiling. It feels wrong.
“Dear God, he’s got a dead cat.”
A boy walks toward us, swinging a pancaked cat by the tail. Its head is a ball of pink mush, and he laughs as he spins it ‘round. “Bye bye, pussycat!” he yells and hurls it (please not at us, please not at us!) away from the road.
“Time to go!” I stow the phone and open the throttle, leaving the strange children behind. They send us off with a chorus of shouts, and I feel a surge of relief as the sound of them fades.
“I hate this island.”
“Oh, come on!” Melissa has assumed the role of optimist, dragging my spirits up by their ankles. Honestly, though, I’m done.
I want a sandy beach. I want dinner. I want a chilled beer (or several), and I don’t want to see a single child or dog for the rest of the day.
I miss Savai’i.
How about you? What’s a harrowing experience you’ve had in another country? How did it affect your opinion of the place? Share your stories in the comments below!