Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Pago Pago on the Remote Island of American Samoa

Our ship arrives in Pago Pago on American Samoa
Our next port was Pago Pago (pronounced pongo pongo) in American Samoa where our ship entered what is recognized as one of the most beautiful harbors in the South Pacific.  It was a hot sunny day in Pago Pago, and it looked like a great day for us to explore this strange new territory.  As soon as we disembarked, the bright colors of the island were on display in a makeshift souvenir market.  (American Samoa does not get many visitors, so the arrival of a cruise ship is a big deal!)  The dense and poignant jungle vegetation covering the hills of the island were a testament that American Samoa was a true island paradise out here in the Pacific. 

Our tour guide, Lau, in Pago Pago

Outside the market, taxi cab drivers were lined up hoping to be selected to chauffeur tourists around the island.  We chose a smiling older woman named Lau, and after conversing with her for several minutes, we decided that she would be our guide for the day; it was a bit of a crap shoot, but after negotiating with her for the terms of the tour, we hopped into her slightly beat-up Toyota taxi cab driven by Lau’s boyfriend, Sandale (pronounced: Sandelli).  Sandale was a giant of a young man, sporting a colorful Hawaiian-like shirt, and the physique of Sumo Wrestler.  He seemed to have limited English language skills, but at the same time, he displayed an “island gentleness” that made us comfortable (somewhat) around him. 
Beautiful American Samoa
These two were far from professional tour guides as we found out, but they took good care of us, and we loved their friendly personalities.  A true highlight was when Lau asked Frank to sing a song; instead, Frank whipped out his harmonica to play her a tune, while Anne sang in accompaniment.  Lau and Sandale were in utter hysterics with the fun and laughter in their cab.  We asked Lau to reciprocate, and this resulted in Lau and Sandale singing a lovely island ballad accompanied by Frank on the harmonica.  You don’t get these precious moments on any organized ship tour!    

The famous ""Flower Pot" in Pago Pago harbor 

This island of Tutuila, largest one in the country, is a lush paradise with gorgeous views and tempting beaches. Pago Pago also has a booming (and smelly) Starkist Cannery, and that worldwide symbol of American culture: a MacDonald’s fast food restaurant (surrounded by palm trees).

The infamous Star Mound
One of our goals was to visit a Star Mound, a rare prehistoric site built of stones that Anne had read about in Lonely Planet.  Well, it seemed that Lau and Sandale knew nothing about star mounds.  Plus Lau had forgotten her map (luckily, we had one with us that we had received back at the port).  However, even with our map, Lau still had to ask passersby several times for help to find this supposedly “renowned” site.  Called Tia Seu Lupe which means “earthen mound to catch pigeons,” the site had clearly fallen on hard times.  The informational signs were covered with mold, and the wooden viewing platform was literally and dangerously falling apart.  Anne gingerly climbed to the top for a better look at the crumbling star-shaped structure.  As nearly as we could tell, these stone mounds were once part of the popular sport of pigeon-catching favored by the island chiefs.  Unfortunately, current residents seem to have no knowledge of this part of their history.  We found this site in the jungle behind an apartment building; it was completely unmarked and not visible from any vantage point out on the road.
American Samoa is an American territory and even the neglected star mounds had some vestiges of typical American tourist signage even though they were deteriorated and hard to read.  The island has many U.S. government buildings -- Lau proudly pointed out the building where “you get your food stamps”.

The priceless $2 Beach
With that dose of island culture, we headed for the beach!  A gorgeous little strip of sand called $2 Beach (the price of admission) beckoned.  This beach was a perfect little slice of the South Pacific dream.  We donned our snorkels and swam out to ogle the colorful fish hanging out at the nearby reef.

Snorkeling at $2 Beach
As we drove around the island, the missionary influence was also quite apparent. We had never seen so many churches in such a small area.  Lau said that every little village had at least three or four churches of varying denominations. A more recent influence comes from Asia.  Lau told us that most of the shops in Pago Pago are owned by either the Chinese or the North Koreans (weird and a bit scary).

Idyllic coastline of American Samoa
This idyllic island is not without other dangers as well.  Billboards instructed what to do in case of an earthquake, and buildings destroyed by the 2009 tsunami still stand abandoned and rotting.  Lau told us that so many people died in the tsunami because the warning alarm came only 5 minutes before the tsunami hit (and the single alarm could not even be heard outside of Pago Pago leaving the rest of the island with no warning at all).  So, even paradise has a dark side!

Turbulent ocean in an area feared
by superstitious locals
We got back to the ship by early afternoon, and after boarding the ship, we intended to come back out and do some shopping in the town of Pago Pago.  But Mother Nature had other ideas.  The rains hit with a violence, seeming to come down at the rate of about 1 inch per minute at times.  We never saw rain this heavy!  It made returning to the town virtually impossible.  We thought we’d wait it out, but it continued to rain for the rest of the afternoon.  We pitied the other ship patrons who were still out there touring the island; they were obviously getting pounded with this rain.  But then we were all warned that Pago Pago is one of the rainiest ports in the Pacific. 

More pics:

More of the American Samoan beaches
Rainmaker Mountain,
ther highest mountain on American Samoa
View of American Samoa from the bow of the Volendam

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