South Pacific Voyage 2012-2013

Pago Pago

By Kate “Bob” Addison

American Samoa is a very cool place. We are told it it culturally homogeneous with Independent Samoa (formerly Western Samoa), but the USA influence in American Samoa is clear from the golden arches of McDonalds to the huge Ford trucks that everybody seems to drive. Many of the people I spoke to had family in Independent Samoa, or had been born there but moved across to get married or find a job. Plenty of American jobs in American Samoa it seems, but a distinctly Samoan identity.

Geographically it is a chain of steep lush islands, the dark emerald green rainforest reaching high up the mountains and most of the buildings close to the shore line or set a little way up the slope with presumably magnificent views. The rainforest is mainly untouched, though here and there you can see patches that have been cleared for vegetable gardens or planted with banana or papaya groves. One hundred feet up the mountains slope seems to have never been touched by humans, it is that lush. It’s too steep for cattle farming so meat and dairy products are shipped in. Actually, most foods are imported; even fresh produce in spite the rich, dark volcanic soil. We met some locals who told us it was easier to earn money and buy vegetables from abroad than to grow your own – and that makes sense too given the hot, humid climate that makes a stroll down the road as sweaty as a gym session back home. It’s something like an extended stay in an unventilated bathroom with the hot taps running full, and then when the sun comes out it becomes a sauna, with steam rising from every surface.

Picton Castle was moored in Pago Pago harbour in the Island of Tutuila. The harbour looks almost like a fjord, a long, thin cut between the steep mountains. There were a handful of yachts tied up at the far end of the harbour, but it is primarily a commercial harbour with steel long liners tied up outside the fish canning factories, and cargo ships rapidly discharging containers. We got a fair bit of attention just for being there, it seems they are not so used to seeing square riggers and it was fun giving directions to the drivers who were to deliver our provisions: just go down to the harbour, it’s the tall ship next to McDonalds, you can’t miss it!

Provisioning itself was an adventure, there are several wholesalers selling food by the case or sack which was perfect for buying big quantities of canned, dried and frozen staples for our hungry crew, but finding the shops took some exciting bus rides and lots of help from incredibly friendly locals who invariably offered us a lift when we stopped them to ask directions to the next shop. We were pretty excited to find a dairy on our travels, but it turns out there aren’t any cows after all, and the dairy just bottles fruit juice and makes ice-cream from powdered milk and coconut. We tried to find some of the ice cream for research purposes, but could only find it by the 10 litre bucket which seemed a touch excessive for the two of us.

The buses in American Samoa had a distinctly Caribbean feel. They look like converted Ford transit vans with a wooden shell built onto the back and rows of wooden benches. They have Perspex windows that slide open for fresh air when it stops raining, and each bus is decorated differently, most with colourful fabric, fake flowers and feather boas all around the dash, and pumping music. You pull an overhead wire that runs the length of the bus to stop, and if the buzzer isn’t working you just bang on the overhead til the driver notices and swerves off the road to let you hop off. And just one dollar no matter where or how far you go. We met some great people on the buses – one was on his way to the dress rehearsal for the annual Fa’afafine beauty pageant, where he was doing the hair and makeup for the ‘ladies’. He said that once he was finished they looked so fabulous no one would guess they were actually men.

Flag Day is the big annual celebration in American Samoa, celebrating dependence on the USA but with some very Samoan customs, and our visit was well timed so we could be a part of it. The day started early with boat races in the harbour. Each village has a boat with about 50 people rowing each one and hundreds more wearing their colours waving and cheering from the dock. Quite an effort to turn such a long boat, but turn they did at the mouth of the harbour to head back to the finish line close to the ship. Then there’s a parade and the boat crews and crowds all head to the stadium a little way out of town to raise the Samoan and USA flags and crown the victorious rowers.

The rest of the day is filled with entertainment at the stadium: whole villages in very elegant outfits singing and dancing in unison; drummers with traditional boars’ tooth tattoos, heavy dark blue ink from waist to knee. I counted the performers for the last village and there were over 300 people dancing together, the women in long red tunics and lava lava with white flowers across the shoulder and in their hair and the men bare-chested in matching red lava lava with a sort of skirt of thin strips of white fabric hanging over the top, giving the impression of grass skirts. The dancing is fascinating, being very Polynesian but also somehow Asian. Maybe hints of the Balinese in the dancing with small, expressive hand movements performed in unison, much of the dancing performed sitting cross legged in neat rows.

The best bit was at the end of each village’s performance when the big chief man, dressed rather like the other men but with a huge headdress and staff, walked down to the front of the performers and the VIPs in the audience came down one by one to kiss him and throw handfuls of money at him. There were a couple of small girls with baskets running round scooping up the greenbacks before they blew away. It was great sport to watch the discomfort of important-looking US Navy types in smart uniform paying their respects to the chief in such an un-military fashion. Then traditional gifts were presented to the VIPS: woven pandanus hats, fans and huge floor mats, carved model canoes and shell or flowers strung onto long necklaces or eis. Really just like a Navy gift exchange ceremony only with less white uniforms and better drumming. The entertainment ended with prayers just before sunset and then the locals drifted off to feasts and parties in their villages and we wandered off in search of some food and a bus back to town.

So red, white and blue coconuts notwithstanding, we thought it was very cool how strong the Samoan identity seemed to be, and how laid back, kind and friendly the people are there. Next time it would be fun to spend much more time exploring the rest of Tutuila and the other Samoan islands, but right now the Kingdom of Tonga is calling.