Country number: 32 (USA)
Territory number: 171
When? August 2017. Coming from Fiji via Samoa. Going on to Hawaii
‘My parents moved to American Samoa when I was three or four years old. My dad was principal of a high school there. It was idyllic for a kid. I had a whole island for a backyard. I lived there until I was eight years old and we moved to Santa Barbara.’
In the departure lounge in Apia a cynically pessimistic little Chinese man carries out a running commentary on how most Samoans need two seats and won’t be able to exit the plane door without pushing each other out. He says that the McDonald’s in Pago Pago is the highest grossing franchise in the USA. He has a New Zealand passport but now lives in Samoa (Auckland is too cold).
During the flight I’ve gone back in time and it’s now yesterday again, as I’ve crossed the date line once more, arriving in Pago Pago (say it Pahngo, Pahngo, but commonly just Pahngo). American Samoa is a day behind Western Samoa, as it needs to stay in line with the mother country. Perhaps the time machine effect explains why I’ve arrived in American Samoa, but my luggage hasn’t, even though it was another of those little twin otter planes that made the hop (so much for me thinking that I had finished with small planes). The men at the Polynesian Airlines office aren’t really bothered. Everything is done at snail’s pace. They aren’t going to die of stress, though possibly heart disease. They tell me it may turn up on the next plane, which is the last one. The hotel driver is now on the case- I hope!
Mr Chinese Pessimist assured me that American Samoa is a dump and I will be glad to leave. But he also told me that my hotel driver wouldn’t turn up and he’s been really helpful. He managed to retrieve my bag so I went to sleep happy. I shall find out the truth on my island tour today.
Today’s geography: this volcanic island is called Tutuila, the capital island of of American Samoa, most of it comprised of steep peaks. The capital town is Pago Pago. There isn’t a road round the island, just a few routes over the top of the mountains to the waterside villages in the east. My driver was going to be Rory, but he’s out of the country, so I have Rory Junior instead. He’s extremely sweet and is very patient, sitting waiting for the rain to stop, so I can dash out and take pictures. It’s been pelting down all day. We manage a few viewpoints and pick out what we can through the clouds. The mountains are cloaked in emerald rainforest and might look stunning with the sun on them. There are a couple of pretty motus and some rock formations with arches off the national park. The beach here is one of those where every boulder wobbles when you step on it and threatens to turn your ankle. It’s a supremely inelegant way to travel.
We even attempt some snorkelling when it’s raining, figuring we are wet anyway. However, the waves are too large, the current too strong and the coral not really worth risking one’s life for. Rory Junior shows me how to use his fishing spear to haul myself back into the beach. The beaches are pretty from a distance, if covered in detritus. There are some colourful gardens, but nothing as immaculate as Samoa. Unsurprisingly, much of the island is very Americanised, with chain stores and advertisements and the habitable areas are crowded with houses, meeting places and churches. Mr C.P’s. judgement is harsh, as applied to the whole island, though only marginally so in relation to Pago Pago itself. It’s spread along a potentially attractive natural harbour, the deepest in the world. There are container docks and some ugly buildings and the tuna canneries, which smell disgusting. The workers are outside on benches taking their break, all wearing plastic hair coverings.
Rory Junior tells me about the tsunami in 2009, when he and his family drove up to the high marshalling point and watched the waves roll in. He said there was no official warning – they just saw it coming and ran, he still has nightmares about it.
Back at my hotel, I have arranged that the driver will take me to the airport to check in at six and then I will come back to the hotel restaurant for dinner. The flight back to Honolulu isn’t until 23.30, but check is open at several slots during the day as the Samoans travel with so many boxes. The plan fails, as the driver disappears and I have to get a kind lady in the airline office to call the hotel and ask them to track him down. I’m tempted to ask for yesterday’s tip back. When I finally get back to the hotel there are no tables left in the restaurant. And I discover that I’ve left my jacket at the airport. At least the driver can redeem himself by going to find it.