And so, with that distinction clear, let me tell you about our time on these islands.
We left Suwarrow in the Cook Islands after a much too brief visit, and headed west into fine weather. We passed the Manua Islands in the dark and arrived in Pago Pago bright and early in the morning.
The most memorable thing about American Samoa and Pago Pago was how awful it was, compared to some of the other islands we had recently visited. I hadn’t seen such filth and apathy since, well, I haven’t ever seen such filth and apathy! From a distance, the island looked fantastic with its tall mountains reaching up to the clouds, and the green stuff growing on the hillsides, but once we entered the bay, we discovered the incredible amount of garbage floating in the harbor. Instead of keeping a lookout for reefs and shoals, I was directing Jack to maneuver Naga around all the plastic bags that were floating just below the surface. The stink from the tuna factories wasn’t as bad as we heard it would be, but the shoreline was several feet thick with garbage and plastic. The harbor was filled with large rust-streaked fishing boats tied four and five deep alongside the wharves in front of the fish canneries, and many more anchored out and rafted together, seemingly creating a floating city of their own. All around the dilapidated structure that posed as a yacht dock were sailboats in various stages of decrepitude and disrepair, looking to me like lost and broken dreams, washed up on the shores of this outpost of American civilization. How utterly disheartening, how incredibly sad.
Dodging floating garbage and uncountable plastic bags, we motored into the inner harbor and tied alongside another sailboat at the crumbling Customs dock. Numerous officials tramped over our deck and the deck of our temporary neighbor, bringing us endless paperwork to fill out and sign, and after a long morning of polite bureaucracy, we were finally allowed the freedom to anchor in the filthy head of the bay. The anchorage is deep and the bottom is littered with debris, so when the anchor hooked in strongly, we could only hope it was in a good clean mud spot rather than the remains of some sunken wreckage.
The first thing that angered us about American Samoa was the complete lack of respect for the island, obvious in the careless manner that garbage was dealt with. But that was only the beginning. For a country so wealthy, how can there be such disregard for safety? The dinghy dock was a series of ancient floating dock sections lashed together, the plastic rotting and brittle. There were cracks and holes all over the surface, waiting only for an incautious step to mutilate our feet and ankles. Numerous businesses that posed as restaurants and guest houses were really whore houses, but every other corner featured a church. Yellow ribbons were tacked up on every window and door, on every fence post and wall, stuck on car windshields and bumpers, all symbolizing support of American troops fighting the war in Iraq. But how is it that such an enormous percentage of Samoan soldiers were sent to the front lines? And why were they among the first to go?
This description of American Samoa sounds dismal, but our visit did have some nicer aspects. We were able to pick up our forwarded mail, and we made some new friends among the cruising sailors passing through. I discovered countless shops selling inexpensive silks and other fabrics, and we were able to buy Joy dish soap, one of the few detergents that work well in salt water. The handful of permanent residents at the yacht dock were friendly and helpful, as were most Samoans we met. We were allowed a glimpse of traditional Samoan culture when we witnessed a funeral procession, and the open style houses called “fales” sparked my interest. Many Samoans still follow traditions in their village and family life, regardless of the ever-increasing “American Style” that seems to be encroaching on the Samoan way of life. Even with all the trash and squalor, I still felt like there was something here deeper than the surface, something worth returning for, something worth a closer look.
We sailed overnight and arrived in Apia, Samoa, on a beautiful morning. The water was clean and clear, and we could see the bottom when we dropped our anchor. Apia Harbor is a semi-circular bay with the town on one side, and the commercial docks on the other. Along the western entrance to the harbor lies a peninsula that features many royal tombs from past kings and leaders, also several memorial parks. Just a short walk from the commercial docks is an underwater park and marine sanctuary where one can dive and snorkel amidst colorful tropical fish, abundant coral life, giant clams, starfish, and other magical critters. As you walk from the docks towards town, you pass the Siva Afi School of Fire-dancing where twice weekly a show is put on for visitors, featuring the best of the fire-dancing students and other traditional Samoan dance routines. Further along you will find several interesting bars and restaurants which stay open late and constitute Apia’s night-life. There is a crafts market and a fish market, also the fantastic produce market and countless shops and stalls selling everything imaginable. The atmosphere is one of color and excitement, something new and interesting everywhere you turn. Especially sweet is the tidiness of town, no trash lining the gutters and sidewalks.
Great pride in the island and its resources is obvious by the emphasis on eco-tourism. There are rivers and coastlines to kayak, waterfalls to play in, beaches to camp at, river rocks to slip and slide down, villages to visit and roadside wonders too numerous to mention. There are volcanoes and caves to explore, jungles to tramp through and island hideaways to simply relax and get away from it all.
There was so much to see and do in Samoa that we decided to rent a car on two different occasions, something we rarely ever do. The traditional Samoan home is called a fale, it is an open sided building with very little furniture, and no walls. Foam mats are usually stacked up in a corner during the day, and laid out on the floor and covered with mosquito nets at night. Pandanus mats are placed around the floor for sitting on, eating on, napping on. As we drove along the roads, people would wave to us from inside their homes, we could look right in and see them sleeping, or eating, the word privacy seems to have no meaning here. Children would run down the road chasing the car, a visitor to their village a very happy occurrence. Samoa truly seemed to be a land of smiles and laughter.
Tourism in Western Samoa is very important to the economy, but it is not taking over in the form of multi-million dollar resorts and such. It’s a much gentler kind of tourism, where visitors are shown the Samoan way of life, encouraged to share in Samoan traditions. Rather than a fancy hotel room, you might find yourself sleeping on a floor mat in a fale protected by mosquito nets, dining on simple meats and vegetables cooked in an earth oven. Entertainment might be songs and stories told around the kava bowl.
Although it may seem like paradise to the visitor, life in Samoa is not so perfect for the Samoan. There is plenty of poverty, and plenty unemployment. There seems to be a lot of discontent with the churches, which feature large in Samoan culture. Many churches demand a large part of family income, and berate openly those families who do not give enough. While the churches and temples are opulent structures resplendent in stained glass and finery, most homes are simple shacks and fales on small parcels of land. Many Samoans I talked with want more from their government, and less church interference in their lives. They feel their contribution to their church is what holds them back from financial independence. The youth seem discontent with many aspects of Samoan traditions, they would like a more westernized lifestyle. One young man I met in a laundromat remarked on the Che Guevara T-shirt I was wearing. He told me that he and his friends wanted to start an armed insurrection to change things on their island, told me that they had studied the writings of Che and dreamed of making their own revolution a reality. Viva La Revolution!
We found Samoa to be a very pleasant and relaxing experience, and we left with the feeling that we had only just begun to see and understand all that this country has to offer. Sailing away, I couldn’t help but look back, taking pictures of the islands as they faded into the horizon. I hope to visit this land of smiles and laughter again. I believe this land of green growing abundance, this land of traditions and family values will always be pulling at me, calling to me, “ Look back! Come back! Remember us! Return to us one day!”
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