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Amerika Sāmoa (Part 2): The Loveliness of Tutuila and the Manu‘a Islands

Published
May 26, 2023
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BECAUSE it is so small and also so rugged, the island of Tutuila is quite crowded in places, with many beaches off-limits to tourists as they are the property of local village communities that cover the flatter areas on the south coast west of Pago Pago, near the airport.

However, there are still plenty of beaches that you can visit, including ones where you can get the kinds of photos that belong in a tourism brochure!

Somewhere on Tutuila

A close-up of the leaning tree in the photo above

Āmanave

Āmanave

In the vicinity of Pola Island, in the National Park of American Sāmoa

In the following video, I show a scene from where I was staying at the Anoa’i family plantation near Fūtiga, southwest of Pago Pago, and then some scenes from beaches near Fūtiga, including the culturally significant Turtle and Shark Beach, where there is also a hostel.

Actually, the area is often just referred to as Turtle and Shark, as it is really a wild rocky cove and not really a relaxing beach like the ones above.

At Turtle and Shark

The Turtle and Shark Lodge

An account of the legend of the Turtle and the Shark, which gives its name to the cove, can be read on the website of the Polynesian Cultural Center.

A little to the east of Pago Pago there is the Two Dollar Beach, so-called because you used to be able to visit it for two dollars, though now the normal charge is five dollars.

There are religious prohibitions on swimming on Sundays in most areas.

Apparently, you are not even allowed to play loud music at home on Sunday in American Sāmoa; otherwise, the police come around and you are chucked in jail.

Though having said that, while I couldn’t swim on Sunday or play loud music, I did go past a bar in Fagatogo that was full of quietly drunk people.

The local Sāmoans, who seem to be very devout, complain that the shopping marts are owned by Koreans or Chinese who are not Christians, and that that is why they are open on Sundays.

The next few photos show Two Dollar Beach, which was completely deserted and seemed to be shut even though I took these pictures on a Monday.

Maybe that Monday was some kind of strict public holiday as well.

It’s easy to get the dates mixed up and lose track of what day of the week it is in the Sāmoan Islands. For, rather incredibly, the International Dateline runs between the two parts of Sāmoa, making the American part a day behind the other part even though they share the same sky. The whole of Sāmoa used to be on the American side until the Independent State opted to go with Australia and New Zealand in 2011, mainly for reasons of business convenience.

Earlier, in 2009, the Independent State also opted to switch from driving on the right as in American Samoa, doubtless a legacy of its own earlier rule by the Germans, to driving on the left. Several countries, such as Sweden, have switched from left to right; but the Independent State is the only one I know of to have gone from right to left. Given that they now drive on opposite sides of the road in addition to having different days of the week, it’s rather fortunate that 70 km (40 miles) of ocean separates the two Samoas.

There have been a lot of changes here in American Sāmoa over the last five years. In the past, you had to be a US National to own or run a business in the past.

That’s all changed and now people can come from overseas and after a year can bring their family over. This has facilitated non-Sāmoan and non-US business startups and takeovers.

Some even said to me that American Sāmoa is being taken over by the Chinese Communist Party by stealth and by business fronts, in the way that is supposed to be happening in one or two other Pacific Island nations and territories, and that the actual Americans needed to wake up to this. That would certainly be ironic if it happened.

Anyway, in the Independent State, it is the other way around. You are allowed to go swimming on Sunday, but most of the restaurants and other places of entertainment are closed.

So, the different parts of the Sāmoan Islands have different approaches to honouring the Sabbath and keeping it holy, in addition to having different ideas of when it is Sunday and when it is not.

In many parts of Sāmoa, both in the Independent State and in American Sāmoa, there are also curfews each night for prayers, though these only last ten or twenty minutes. The curfews are called Sa. If travellers on the road hear the bell or blowing of a conch shell that announces the Sa, they should keep going and not interrupt the locals till the Sa is over. This is an aspect of Fa‘a Sāmoa, which means the ‘Sāmoan Way’, a system of customs that is especially worth studying before visiting the more traditional rural areas.

As I have noted, it is mostly Pago Pago and the National Park that make up the touristy bit here. Some people also opt to visit the Manu‘a Islands still further to the east, roughly 100 km from the easternmost tips of Tutuila and Aunu‘u.

From Savai‘i to Rose Atoll, the main Sāmoan Islands have been formed by volcanic eruptions over a ‘hot spot’ in the Earth’s mantle, over which the crust has slipped for millions of years. In this respect, the Sāmoan Islands are like the Hawai‘ian Islands.

(Savai‘i and Hawai‘i both mean the same thing, a mythical homeland of the Polynesian peoples that is also known as Hawaiki in Maori.)

The other inhabited islands of American Sāmoa are the Manu‘a Islands, consisting of the two small, half-joined islands of Ofu and Olosega, and the larger island of Ta‘ū.

Ofu (left) and Olosega (right). Imagery ©2023 Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Data Oregon State University, CNES/Airbus, Data LDEO-Columbia, NSF, Landsat-Copernicus, Maxar Technologies. Map Data ©2023 Google. View is looking northward, in 3D.

Ta‘ū. Imagery ©2023 Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Data Oregon State University, CNES/Airbus, Data LDEO-Columbia, NSF, Landsat-Copernicus, Maxar Technologies. Map Data ©2023 Google. View is looking northward, in 3D.

Only about 1.400 people live on the Manu‘a Islands now, but they used to be very important, actually at the centre of Sāmoan culture, before the population shifted westward to Tutuila, Upolu, and Savai‘i. Indeed the Manu‘a Islands have been occupied for about three thousand years, which is a long time in the history of Polynesian settlement.

The Manu‘a Islands are also very ruggedly scenic, with cliffs some 2,000 feet or 600 metres high on Ta‘ū and jagged peaks on Ofu-Olosega. And so, a small minority of intrepid travellers make it out this far. The anthropologist Margaret Mead also did the fieldwork for her famous but controversial book Coming of Age in Sāmoa on Ta’ū.

Here are a couple of Manu‘a trails advertised at the museum, on Ta‘ū and Ofu respectively.

Here’s a closer photo of the jaggedy, razor-like peaks on Ofu just before the causeway to Olosega.

Ofu Beach, showing Olosega in the background. Public domain image by the US National Park Service, 31 December 2005, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Manu‘a Islands have continued to depopulate. There is no regular boat that goes to Manu‘a, only a plane, with attendant costs. I met a guy who said he had left Manu‘a fifty years ago and went to live in America. He said that he is now appalled at the state of the Manu‘a Islands, which now have no postal services, he said.

So maybe you should visit the Manu‘a Islands and help to revitalise their economy. I would like to do so next time. It certainly sounds as though you won’t be having to elbow other tourists aside.

The sorts of razor-like peaks you can see here and there in American Sāmoa, of which Pola Island is the most razor-like, are volcanic sills, casts of former underground cracks in softer materials such as volcanic ash, which came to be filled with molten lava that then cooled and solidified. The soft rock then eroded away, leaving the sills.

If you come back to the larger and more rounded islands of the Independent State in another million years, when they have eroded away, they will probably display similar sorts of sills.

Pago Pago and Fagatogo are very handy for shopping and cafes as well. Prices are cheaper than in the Independent State, that’s for sure, and of course there is the Fagatogo Square mall.

Near a township called Nu‘uuli, halfway between Fagatogo and the airport, I went to a café called Felila and met a lovely woman named Judy. Then I went to the nearby HQ of the local mobile phone provider, Bluesky, to get a SIM card and data for my phone and had a conversation with the people in the phone place as well.

Bluesky hands out its SIM cards for free, and the service is very cheap. So, there is no need to risk a shock bill from roaming.

You can see Bluesky in the background of this photo, behind the Carl’s Jr. fast food restaurant sign. The building is the Laufou Shopping Centre, Nu‘uuli. The Laufou Shopping Centre contains a good place to eat if you want something different from chargrilled hamburgers, namely, the Koko Bean Café.

Overall, the best places to get a coffee were said to be in Tafuna. One or two said that the very best for coffee, or cappuccinos, was the Tradewinds Hotel.

Other cafes in the area include the A&E Café next to the Cost-U-Less store which sells cheap furniture, and the Ruby Red café just across the road.

Despite the prevalence of cafés, I noticed that it was often hard to get a decent cup of coffee by New Zealand standards. The American Sāmoans like to drink cocoa made with condensed milk, so coffee is not really their thing. Perhaps for that reason, and because they are also Americans technically speaking, the coffee in the local cafés tends to be the dreaded excessively tall, watery Americano, more watery than our long black. It is sometimes lost on the Americans and everyone who falls under their influence that less is more when it comes to café coffee.

(I don’t know why New Zealand, the erstwhile land of rugby, horse racing, and beer, and otherwise almost exclusively tea-drinking in the days when we were a colony, should have higher standards than the Americans when it comes to coffee these days. But so it is, and so we are in fact rather spoilt, critical, and opinionated in this matter, the old colonial cringe definitely a thing of the past.)

The most popular beer in both parts of Sāmoa is Vailima, brewed in Apia, the capital of the Independent State since 1978, and now brewed in Fiji as well. You can get Vailima in New Zealand, and it is now being exported to the United States as well.

West of Tafuna, in a district called Leone, I visited Pritchard’s Bakery, a century-old local business.

I also hired a car for US$70 a day from J Mascot Auto and Shop, Pati Jennings, owner, email pekajennings@yahoo.com phone 006842528964, and she and I had a discussion for about an hour.

There are a lot of dirt roads on the island, and the car I hired was not suitable for dirt roads. So that is maybe the first thing to ask. But anyway, I found out a lot from these discussions.

The landownership structure is quite difficult. Pati Jennings was born here but does not have anything on her tribal land. She would have to buy land outright, in Futega, to have a permanent site for her business and this would have cost half a million. She said that at the moment they are leasing their property for a fifty-year lease. She is mostly based in the USA as well, in Hawai‘i.

I saw a lot of empty houses. And Pati said yeah, there are a lot of people living on the mainland, meaning the USA including Hawai‘i. Sāmoans get five dollars an hour locally, but if they go to Hawai‘i they get fifteen dollars an hour just working in Macdonalds.

Now, if we turn to American Sāmoa, I think they have tried to raise the minimum wage to $10 or $12 but there is a fish factory here and they have said that they will pull out of American Sāmoa and go to Thailand if they have to pay the new minimum wage in American Sāmoa.

There’s a shortage of accommodation: people can’t get houses. Another guy I was speaking to, who was born in Los Angeles and lived most of his life in the Independent State, bringing children over, had had a breakdown because of the way of life here. He too said there were no houses.

Now, the reason that there are no houses is because a lot of the tribal land has empty buildings, but to sell tribal land you have to get the permission of every single member of the tribe, even the ones in the USA, or a paramount chief, so that is a problem.

There are major skills shortages as well, perhaps for the same reason along with low pay. Among other things, what this means is that a lot of local websites aren’t updated and are totally unreliable as to whether something is open or closed. You have to find out more or less by word of mouth or by searching around, for instance on YouTube.

On a different note, I took lots of photos of the local Aiga (‘family’) buses, which presumably get that name because they belong to families rather than actual bus lines. Aiga buses are the only means of public ground transportation on the island of Tutuila. They all seem to be brightly coloured.

'Test Your Airbag Here'

Here’s a video I took from inside an Aiga bus, admiring the scenery on the left side and then on the right.

And churches.

And this interesting rotunda, in a traditional style, as well.

As with the steel drums of the Caribbean that were made from oil drums originally, so likewise in American Sāmoa, and maybe Sāmoa in general, the church bells are made from old gas canisters.

Here’s a sign that points to the historic Governor’s Mansion, another of the historical attractions of the Fagatoga area of downtown Pago Pago. American Sāmoa was under a military Governor at first, and then a civilian Governor sent out from Washington. Nowadays, the Governor is elected locally.

I think the building in the next photo is the present-day governor’s residence, as opposed to the historic mansion on the hill.

And I saw a va‘a.

I thought this motel was pretty.

Red seems to be a popular colour in American Sāmoa.

Onenoa, near the very eastern tip of Tutuila, advertises itself as the home to Miss American Sāmoa and Miss Pacific Islands 2017–1018. The sign is a bit faded, but hopefully not the Miss.

I thought this sign was quite quirky, too.

Here’s a further video I made of my travels:

I think that the Sāmoan bird I refer to in the video might have been the Tava‘e or tropic bird, of which there are three species. Two species of tropic bird are found in Sāmoan waters, the white-tailed and the red-tailed.

Information panel about Tava‘e

Tropic birds look like seagulls, but with a long streaming tail. They are the most maritime of all seabirds, having actually lost the ability to walk. They generally forage far out to sea, leaving the inshore areas to the more normal sorts of seagulls.

As the name suggests, tropic birds mostly live in the tropics: but not strictly so. The red-tailed tropic bird is quite often seen over New Zealand’s offshore islands and peninsulas, mostly in the north, though they have even been seen at Akaroa. In New Zealand, they have a Maori name, Amokura. The white-tailed tropic bird is more strictly tropical. Whenever one of these turns up in New Zealand, it has usually been blown way off course and is in need of rescue.

Here was a scene I shot at night, the moon through strange clouds.

And then I caught the Lady Sāmoa IV back to Apia. In this photo, you can see the waves exploding on the rocks in the distance.

Here’s a video of my return trip to Apia aboard the Lady Samoa IV:

And a photo of the sunset, that I actually took a few days before, on the way to American Sāmoa.

More Information about American Sāmoa can be found on VisitPagoPago.com.

The next post in this series introduces my visit to the Independent State of Sāmoa.

Updated with a minor correction on 2 August 2023.

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