I had only a vague sense of where American Samoa was when my son first suggested that we might spend some of our vacation time there this winter. And, having now returned from our trip, I do have a better understanding of its geography and, perhaps of a few other things about the island that might be of interest.
So, first of all, where is it? Well, for openers, “it” is really “they,” because the atolls that comprise this particular American colony consist of three separate islands that are populated and several others that aren’t. And, just to be clear, we’re talking Southern Hemisphere, out in the Pacific Ocean. To be specific, the islands are at approximately sixteen degrees latitude (south) and 170 degrees longitude on your map of the world, meaning if they were only a few hundred miles to the west of where they are, they’d be across the international dateline.
So, to simplify matters, let’s just say that to get to American Samoa from our home in Sacramento, we had to fly six hours to Honolulu, and then, after a three hour layover, fly another six hours to the “International Airport” in Pago Pago, which is the capital of the islands. Oh, and a word about that “international airport.” To my amazement (I actually lost a bet with my wife on this point), the airport only services one airline – Hawaiian Airlines. And that airline only flies into American Samoa twice a week, on Fridays and Mondays. So, it’s an airport that has one terminal, and that one terminal only functions two days a week.
If you’re following me, then you now understand that if you want to fly out of American Samoa, your options are similarly limited: you can depart on the Hawaiian Airlines flight that leaves on Friday night or on the one that leaves on Monday night. Both are red-eyes, taking off about one hour after the Hawaii to American Samoa flights have deposited their passengers. Both of our flights – from Honolulu and back – were filled to capacity, but most of the passengers appeared to be residents. In fact, my observation, confirmed by a few locals I spoke with, is that although tourism is a major (relatively speaking) industry, not all that many non-Samoans visit the islands. Indeed, we encountered no other tourists during our three days there. A park ranger we chatted with said apart from us only a Danish couple had visited the national park center on the day we visited.
And, in truth, there isn’t a whole lot to see in American Samoa. We went because it is home to one of the 94 U.S. national parks my son has determined he will visit and hike before he gets married. He’s been to about half of them so far, and I’m sure his fiancée is pleased that he now has this one out of the way.
There are three hotels in Pago Pago (and no others on the islands, so far as I was able to tell). The one we stayed in was rated three stars (as were the others). It was the equivalent of a nice Best Western (without the swimming pool most of those have, but with a high-priced restaurant). Our hotel wasn’t on the beach, but we did visit one that was, and I got in a quick swim in the lagoon (the most tranquil of waters and crystal clear) adjacent to that beach.
I was lucky to get in that swim, for we were there during the islands’ “rainy season,” which, depending on which resident you spoke to, runs from December to March, April or July. (I guess it depends on the year and which way the trade winds are blowing.) We did witness some truly torrential downpours while we were there. “Tons of rain,” one forecast read, and that was pretty accurate. (Average annual rainfall measures 200 inches.) Otherwise the conditions were relatively pleasant: high humidity, but the temperature never got much above 85 (or lower than 70).
I saw no sign of wealth in American Samoa. The principal industry is fishing. Sunkist has the only major plant we saw. Most residents seem to subsist at a relatively low standard of living, but, on the other hand, I didn’t see any real signs of impoverishment, either. Everyone seems to get by, either on wages from government work, from driving the many buses or taxis that get everyone around (bus rides are a dollar to take you almost anywhere; taxis maybe two bucks for the same trip), or from the produce from the farms that populate the region.
Religion is big in American Samoa. There are many varieties of Christianity represented, and I saw no signs of any other faiths. We attended a church service on the Sunday of our visit. It was mostly spoken in Samoan. And when the pastor did speak a sentence in English, it was seemingly right in the middle of a paragraph of his sermon, which left me to wonder what the significance of those sentences was.
Almost everyone we encountered spoke some degree of English (the road signs are all in English), and everyone seemed pleased to be “part of the U.S.” I certainly didn’t sense any desire for autonomy, such as neighboring Western Samoa (until recently a British colony) apparently exhibited (leading to its recognition as an independent country, now called just Samoa).
Dogs run free in American Samoa, and there are thousands of them. Many are feral, living off the bounteous vegetation and the occasional bone thrown their way. They are amazingly savvy to the ways of the human world, even waiting for cars to pass before crossing the street. Being a dog lover, I was enthralled by them, but we did meet a physician who said he had been attacked by a herd some years ago, as a result of which he always carries a cane when he goes for a walk.
I liked American Samoa. The people were very friendly and helpful. I don’t know that I’d go back, but I’m glad our son persuaded us to go.