While I’m sure I’m not the only Kiva fellow who has to make a “visa run” (leaving the country to avoid having to apply for an extended-stay visa), I’m pretty sure I’m the only one whose visa run included a giant chunk of Americana. American Samoa is just a 30-minute flight away and pretty much the only destination that’s not prohibitively expensive to get to, if you want to leave the country. I had never been to a US territory before, and definitely had (and continue to have) mixed feelings about the whole concept. Regardless, my Lonely Planet guide referred to it as “the prettier sister” (ouch) of the Samoas, and my island fever got me pretty excited to travel anywhere…even to another island that’s even smaller than ‘Upolu!
Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango, but the ‘g’ isn’t so hard) is the name of both a village that is the capital and the harbor that defined this island as a US Navy base since it became a territory in 1900. Usually it’s shortened to “Pago” and is used to refer to the village, harbor, island of Tutuila, and the entirety of American Samoa. No one would refer to someone as an American Samoan–they say ‘someone from Pago’. Pago is even smaller than Samoa, clocking in at a whopping 55,519 during the 2010 census. The whole of the country amounts to around 75 square miles, which is roughly the same size as Washington DC. Tutuila is the main island, with 4 smaller islands scattered nearby. The license plates only have four digits. Basically, it’s small.
I was only in the country for 31 hours, but it was an incredible trip. To help me sort out my myriad of thoughts and hopefully keep this readable, I’m going to divide this post into several sections, and two parts. We’ll cover sections 1& 2 here.
- The travel.
- The beauty.
- The American.
- The Samoan.
1. The travel.
There are two airports on ‘Upolu–Faleolo, which is the main international airport, and Fagalii, the ‘domestic’ airport, with flights to Pago and Savai’i. I was totally unsure of what to expect and how to behave as my newly acquired island pace of life battled with my inner uptight American traveler. When should I show up? What should I plan? I consulted with my neighbor (SPBD’s General Manager), and she pointed out that it was still an international flight. Better get there at 6:30 for my 8:30 flight. My landlady agreed, yes, better to be on the safe side.
The day before I left, I mentioned casually to my Samoan coworker and friend that I was planning on heading to the airport around 6:30 for my flight to Pago. She basically laughed in my face and told me that last time she went, she left her house at 3 for a 3:30 flight. In between laughing, she managed, “I’ll take you to the airport. If you want to be there early, we’ll leave at 7:15, or 7:30.” My inner American uptight traveler rebelled. “How about 7? I’ll come at 7.” “Okay, okay.”
My morning went a little something like this:
- 6:30: Wake up. The sun hasn’t risen. Seriously reconsider how early I need to be there. Visions of missing my flight, overstaying my visa, and giant fines convince me to get out of bed.
- 7:00: Arrive at Lusila’s house ready to go. Lusila is asleep in front of the TV. She wakes when I poke my head in and waves me in.
- 7:15: Lusila shows no sign of moving.
- 7:20: “We’ll just get some coffee and then go.”
- 7:23: The shop is closed. “We’re going to just go pick up my mom, she wants to come along. Then coffee. Then we’ll go.”
- 7:30: We pick up Lusila’s mom. I feel slightly stressed, and unconcerned about breakfast but they are insistent.
- 7:42: Breakfast in hand, I hustle up to the check-in counter, certain that I am late. The agent tells me that I’m too early.
- 7:45: I’ve taken one bite of my breakfast sammie when they announce check-in is open. It also starts pouring rain.
I would just like to pause at this point to mention that I had neglected to book any accommodations, figuring I’d just wing it. Upon hearing this, Lusila insisted on calling up her cousin (really second cousin once removed, or something…but in Samoa, it’s all cousin.) to have her pick me up and show me around and house me. Of course, my Samoan phone wouldn’t function in Pago. So the plan was for her cousin to find me at the airport.
- 8:20: After a check-in process that involves weighing each passenger and applying a gentle squeeze to my backpack as a security check, I’m seated in the ‘departure lounge’ with 7 other passengers. The rain is coming down so hard it’s bouncing off the pavement. Looking at the propeller plane I’m about to get on, I contemplate my impending death.
- 8:35: Five minutes after the flight was supposed to leave, a man unscrews the fuel cap and dips a metal rod in. He pulls it out, peering at it to determine the fuel level. I consider seriously if I am at peace with my life as I have lived it.
- 8:40: A small John Deere tractor rolls out, pulling a tank of fuel. They begin fueling the plane. I see a pilot casually hop into the cockpit via what looks like a car door. I decide I have lived a good life.
- 8:50: The propellers start up. How are we going to get on the plane without being decapitated?? The plane leaves. Without any of us on board.
- 8:55: The plane returns from its ‘test run’ and they begin boarding. I think wistfully of my friends and family and climb on board.
Although I have been reassured many times by my boyfriend that flight is a miracle of science, not magic, and therefore planes are unlikely to fall out of the sky, there is a tiny grain of doubt that lives inside me whenever a plane is taking off. The anxiety I developed staring at the not-so-big propellers upon which my life depended was alleviated only by the distraction of the view I had…both inside the plane and outside.
Upon landing, I emerged from Pago Pago International Airport to find….no one. Uh-oh. I wasn’t too concerned–after all, I could always take a taxi or bus into ‘town’ and check-in somewhere–but I didn’t want to disappoint Lusila by not finding her cousin. I checked the pay phone. No dial tone. A Chinese man walking by noticed my casual investigations and offers me his phone. Success! I call Aimoto, who cheerfully says she’s coming to get me.
2. The beauty.
It turns out that American Samoa is completely, entirely, totally beautiful. At times, jaw-droppingly beautiful. However, due to plentiful government aid, the tourism industry is almost nonexistent, which is kind of weird. Frustratingly, none of the pictures I took really seem to capture the beauty of the island, which lays in the staggering mountain peaks that dominate everything. While there is a small section of flat plains near the airport, the rest of the island is defined by mountains and ocean. Most villages are wedged into a strip of land right on the water, often with just 400m (or even less) between the ocean and where the sheer rock face shoots up, impossibly steep and unusable for farming or living. And yet, these sheer faces are covered in jungle-thick green. A wealthy layer of alive, vivd green, impassable without a machete and often not even then, turns this giant rock in the ocean into an island.
Aimoto was kind enough to drive me all over the island, and in my short time, I was able to cover almost all of it. The one road doesn’t even encircle the whole island–there’s a large chunk of the northern coast that the road doesn’t extend to. A huge part of Tutuila, as well as the nearby Manu’a, Tau, and Ofu island groups, belongs to a National Park, weirdly enough, administered by the US Park Service. I fully plan on someday returning to American Samoa to explore the other islands, which are supposed to be even more beautiful, and hopefully see more of Pago’s beauty from a vantage point that’s not inside a crisply air-conditioned SUV. I can’t even imagine how tough it would be to climb one of these mountains in the tropical heat–but I would love to try.
In the interest of keeping your interest (hah. see what I did there?), I decided to split this into two posts. Come back in a couple days for Part 2, covering what puts the America and Samoa in American Samoa!