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AMERICAN SAMOA an expedition to america's most remote national park

Sometimes it feels as if I have been cursed, to live the restless rider’s life of a wandering soul. But there are times, when journeying, I find that silent place within me. The place which captivates me in its walls of gratitude, and inspires me at the foot of its towers of awe.

Do you know the place of which I speak?

view from the National Park

American Samoa is a U.S. territory far off in the South Pacific. It is an outward group of islands with its own leafy walls of gratitude and its own lofty peaks of awe. It is home to American Samoa National Park, our most remote protected lands. In fact, her remoteness may cause many to wonder if travel there is worth the effort, or not at all.

But if one desires to hike jungle paths; to hear and feel the crash of roaring ocean waves; to watch sea foam receding from battered, volcanic ramparts; or if one merely wants to check off this national park from their list of 58, then American Samoa will afford the answer to your romantic and restless longings.

American Samoa can be reached by cruise ships which offer day visits from her glorious harbor. But ship travel has its limitations and you may not find the time to get to the national park itself. If your heart is stouter than most, then flying to American Samoa’s capital, Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango) may be the better choice. This way will also immerse you more fully into the charming Samoan culture.

Samoan friends

There are flights from Fiji and California and Hawaii. If you decide to go the Hawaiian route, and if you plan your trip meticulously, you can then also spend time on Oahu before and/or after.

Hawaiian Airlines only flies twice a week from Honolulu (HNL) to Pago Pago (PPG), on Mondays and Thursdays, so you have to plan your trip accordingly. The average cost to fly from Hawaii is roughly $900 in winter season, but you can limit this burden by keeping an eye open for reduced fares or by traveling during the other seasons. American Samoa is only 14 degrees south of the Equator, so temps are fairly constant throughout the year: warm; very humid; and rainy.

In my case, I arrived at HNL on a Monday afternoon in February and departed 2 hours later on a Hawaiian Airlines flight for PPG. I do not recommend this, unless you are pressed for time. For the flight to Pago Pago takes another 5 1/2 hours. Expecting to sleep on this flight turned out to be an impossibility. Most of the passengers were Samoans returning home from shopping expeditions to Hawaii and their excitement overflowed in their conversations.

night view from Sadies By The Sea

There are only three or four choices of hotels on the island of Tutuila, the largest and most populated of the American Samoa islands. I was very pleased to have chosen Sadie’s By The Sea for my lodgings, for they picked me up from the airport (as well as a half dozen other international guests) in a van to transport us to the hotel.

After this midnight ride, highlighted by our own excited chatter, we were checked in to our rooms. Mine was simple, with tiled floors and a single bed. But I embraced it as my home as I fell wearily asleep, exhaustion creeping like a lizard into my mind.

Awakening at dawn, I was struck by the sight from my window-paned door of a placid sea and pink clouds above. It was an inspiring sight, and I sat in meditation upon this spectacular view.

The sunlight kept getting brighter, but softly so. I slid open the door and walked down cement steps into the tropical waters of Pago Pago Harbor at high tide. This being an escape from a Midwest winter, the sands shifting below my toes was most welcoming.

Sadie’s woke quietly that first morning. I sauntered to the restaurant for a traditional American style breakfast of eggs and ham. Most of the fare at Sadie’s Restaurant and Sadie’s Goat Island Cafe are dishes Americano. Burgers, fries, and nachos can be had for lunch. A nice steak or baked chicken with salad is typical for dinner. They also host a large collection of liquor and wines.

Sadies' Restaurant

The staff at Sadie’s-by-the Sea were pleasant and friendly and very helpful. After acquiring a sense of islandly perspective from one of the girls at the desk, I bounded out to the Fagatago Market to get a glimpse of island life. I did not know my naivete would nearly land me into some trouble.

After a short walk, less than half a mile, I came to the market which was the center of activity. Samoan ladies vended fruits from their stands. Island shirts were sold from kiosks. Artifacts and hand crafted knick-knacks could be purchased for reasonable prices.

Fagatago Market

After spending time window shopping, I walked across the street from the market. A heavy rainstorm came sweeping in, so I took shelter under the awning of a grocery store. The colours of the public buses on the road were enhanced by the rain, so I began to shoot a series of pictures of them with the poetic names of their destinations printed on signs affixed to the water streaked windshields.

It was a mesmerizing moment, and I got caught up in the sounds of rain splashing, car horns honking, people running for cover. A woman approached me and said she knew me from Sadie’s, that she worked there. I greeted her as an acquaintance even though I wasn’t sure I had indeed met her before.

In retrospect, of course she knew I was staying at Sadie’s, for it was the only hotel within miles. And here I was, a tourist shooting away with his camera, absentmindedly, in a rainstorm. I certainly was out of place and not on home soil.

Samoan artistry

Because I did not doubt her, not wanting to offend, she played on my trust by telling me she was short of money to buy food in the market. Promising to repay me later that day at the hotel, I found myself sympathetically giving her two twenty dollar bills from my wallet.

She then asked for more, saying her boyfriend was in a car in the parking lot, and that they would give me a ride back to the hotel to stay dry from the storm. By this time I knew I was being played….but also, that this had now taken a dangerous turn. I gave her another twenty declining the ride forthright. The extra money, I felt, was like a payoff to leave me alone.

She disappeared, and I walked back dejectedly to the hotel. The girls at the desk did not know of the woman who claimed to work there. They were vividly distraught and very apologetic that this had happened. Samoan people do not act this way, they emphasized.

They offered to report the incident, but I calmed their fears and frustrations by saying it wasn’t necessary. They did change my room for me, however, as I could not remember if I had mentioned my room number to the culprit.

Later that night I noticed that the outdoor security man walked past my room a few times with his flashlight, checking in on me. I never saw that woman afterwards. I know she needed the money more than I did; I only hope the karma in the procurement of it wasn’t too harsh.

My first day in American Samoa was meant to be my rest day. I planned to visit the National Park on my second day; but that first afternoon, I did walk to and locate the bus terminal from which I would be journeying to the park. It was just beyond the Fagatogo Market.

ginger laden bus

There was a Filipino food stand by the bus terminal. For lunch I bought a dish called Adobo, which featured flavored pork and rice. It was quite tasty.

I then spent the remainder of the afternoon on the beach at Sadie’s, for the tide had been drawn out. Piton-type peaks, dressed in emerald cloths of leaves tower above the beach to its north; and easterly, the mouth of Pago Pago Harbor opens its jaws to the sapphire sparkle of the sea.

It was a relaxing day, and I rested peacefully that night under the protection of the guard’s flashlight …. and the Loving care of stars in their galaxies.

And so, as diligently planned, on the second day of my adventure, bright and early, I walked to the bus depot and boarded the one bound for the little town of Vatia, with pickups and drop-offs along the way.

The passengers were all Samoan: mom’s escoting their kids to school; elderly couples seemingly headed home from a stay with relatives near Pago Pago; a lady bringing home groceries.

I did not feel as if I was treated as an abnormality, though most people’s eyes did open slightly wider when they noticed an American occupying a seat on their daily transport.

children of Vatia

And the bus driver was an obliging fellow. Once at the National Park, which isn’t at all like any of the other U.S. Parks, he waited patiently as I hiked here and there taking my pictures of the rolling sea and the sea-torn, volcano-pumiced caves beyond the shoreline.

American-Samoa is our only National Park in the Southern Hemisphere. It is distributed across three different islands: Tatuila, Ofu, and Ta’u. There are no entrance gates, no entrance fees or well defined borders. A small village is encompassed there, in the Tatuila unit.

I had to make my own path through the brambles to view the rock-strewn shoreline and the roaring waters which seemed to be somehow above me, closer to the sky than hands raised above my head.

The forest was unkempt, but beautifully sublime. Even the leaves of plants hold mysteriously distinct and pupil pleasing colourations. The flowers are not only tropic in nature, with their waxy, wing-like petals, but also atypical and seemingly empyrean. The spiny, fuchsia-colored fruit of the Futu Tree may look like it is derived from the heights of heaven, but it is potent enough to be used by islanders as fish poison. Thus its colloquial name, “poison fish tree”.

poison fish fruit

The park protects and preserves this mixed-species, tropical cloud and rainforest; its coral reefs (especially those found in the waters off of Ofu and Ta’u); and the habitat of fruit bats including the large critter known as the Flying Fox. (The bats of Samoa are even responsible for the pollination of the Futu as well as other trees and plants on the island.) Though I did not get a glimpse of this secretive fox-faced bat my day in the park, I did indeed find his brethren soaring the skies above Pago Pago on more than one occasion.

On the road back to Pago Pago harbor, the bus driver stopped at overlooks to view from the cliffs of the island. They were most spectacular.

After arriving back to my abode at Sadie’s By The Sea, I spent the afternoon relaxing on the sands of her beach and snorkeling in the multi-hued warm waters of Pago Pago Harbor.

It was cruise ship day, and I had a first hand view of the smokestacks of ships gliding past the beach and supposedly into the jungle. For the bay cuts through the trees of the harbor there, and the perspective is only of beryl green vegetation … and, of course, the moving feast of a cruise ship’s upper parapets before they put into port.

I decided to go for a walk.

Near the harbor, the locals had put up sell stands to attract the ship passengers unloading from their vessels. Many of them mulled about, inspecting the goods of these evocative shops. I too found myself looking for a Samoan gift for my kids back at home.

ukulele street ensamble
jammin

It was in one of these stands that I met a lady by the name of Anette. Anette is from the Philippines and was working a second job in one of the stands to help pay for her sponsorship to one day be able to get a visa to the United States. She had family in the States and was also in the pursuit of a dream to have a better life.

An accomplished seamstress, and having even made the dress she wore that day, she helped me to pick out a Samoan sun dress for my daughter. We became friends right away and remain so to this day.

Anette

There is a large population of Filipinos and Filipinas living in American Samoa, a protectorate of the United States. In order to hopefully one day become a U.S. citizen, they have to acquire a sponsor. A sponsor is someone who will vouch for them, perhaps provide employment, and guide them on the path to fulfill their dreams.

The sponsorship is paid for from the wages they receive for their work. These are well below minimum, disheartenedly so, and the sponsee is expected to make the over inflated payments by working long hours, as long as there is work available. Sometimes it is not.

Anette, I have since found, is not only a diligent and hardworking individual, but she is extremely talented. She created rare and individual puletasis for the Samoan women and lavalava skirts for the men. She also fitted and formed and slaved for days before the opening of school year to provide uniforms for the Samoan school children.

She always has kept her humor despite the fact that the terms of her sponsorship always seemed to change for the benefit of her sponsor and not for her. She worked for years, extending far beyond the presumed time.

At last, Anette finally got her visa a couple of years ago when her sponsor had to come to the States for her own daughter’s wedding. She brought Anette along to fit her daughter for her wedding dress.

Anette now lives with her sister in California along with her beautiful and precious two-year-old granddaughter who is sick with leukemia. She continues to work hard as a seamstress, but for a fairer wage, expressing her art through the concepts of her imagination, the needles of her sewing machine, and the dexterity of her hands.

Perhaps all of our journeying brings the most fulfillment in the meeting of sweet people.

The third and final day of my trip was not to be an idle one. The flight back to Oahu leaves at 11:30 in the evening. So I had to make sure I was back to Sadies by 3:00 to pack my bag and store it before making myself scarce from the hotel until 9:00, when the shuttle bus would leave to transport me back to the airport.

My first order of business was to take a jungle hike on a path one of the ladies at the front desk had described to me. She did not know the name of the path, but it is about one mile south of Sadie’s on East Coast Highway. And it is known for the navy canons, left over from World War 2, at the top of the forested jungle trail.

East Coast Highway

Walking to find the path was more than an ordinary experience, for this section of road was under construction to build fales for Samoan ceremonies and village meetings. A fale, of course, is a Polynesian style house (more like a hut, really), circular or octagonal, with thatch roof and open walls for wind relief. The wood used to hold the structure is usually teak and decorated by symbolic carved images.

Further on, after passing a outrigger longboat laying prone against a beach house, I crossed the road from the water, and I spotted the trail.

The path was not as steep as I had thought. But it did become narrow in spots and some shifting was required to stay on course. It is a warm and humid walk, but mostly shady under the top heavy canopy of palms and fronds. When first gaining the summit, you see the freshly painted green canon pointed out to open sea. A cruise ship or import barge may sail below, and you can imagine the canon bellowing shot and fire to eliminate a hostile enemy right from the blue-sky waters.

The walk became more shaded after this with breadfruit and guava and papaya hanging from twisted limbs. At my feet, and in the jungle quiet, I heard a scampering. Searching, I found the a hermit crab with its legs partially stretched out from the shell in which it hid. Shyly did he let me capture the nature of his winsome beauty. I spent many moments with him and eventually needed to pull myself from his friendship, as one eventually needs to let all things go.

breadfruit

He scurried under fallen twigs and multifaceted leaves.

The flowers of this forest were a fit of poetry uncaptured. There were red hibiscus and red ginger with its petals leafing up into its small, fragile tower. There were Pua Samoa with their five white petals and yellow hearts and Puataunofo, the golden trumpet. There were Ifi trees and ‘Ulu trees and, yes, the aforementioned Futu.

And beyond these, just as the path begins its way down to lower heights, as you peer out from jungle’s edge, there is a town. As its welcome mat, there is a carpet of turquoise sea. The houses of this nameless village rise on the hill creating an idyllic setting for a wandering soul to see.

Walking back the way I came, listening to the harmonious twittering of a myna bird, I sauntered assured in the knowing of this now familiar place.

I went back to Sadies a bit tired from my humid scamperings. After a nap and a shower, I went to leave my bags in a room provided for the guests who later that evening would leave.

There was a lady conversing with the hotel staff there at the desk. She had a British accent. She was about to wear a beautiful frangipani in her hair, but she was undecided where the appropriate place to put it was.

She told the ladies, laughing and giggling at her humor, that she had heard that if she placed the flower behind her right ear it would signify that she was available. If she pinned it behind her left ear, that would mean she was taken. And, if she decided to wear two flowers, one behind the right and one behind the left, that would mean that she was married but still available.

So one of the samoan damsels, cracking up, instructed her to pin the flower to the top of her head. This would signify “I’m not sure !”

I too joined in their laughter.

My new friend, Anette had emailed me earlier and she was kind enough to meet me for a Samoan feast.

There is a place on the other side of Pago Pago where you can experience traditional Samoan food. Tisa’s Barefoot Bar offers seafood, organic vegetarian dishes and fruit desserts. But it is more widely known for its Samoan Umu Feast.

The Umu is a type of handmade oven structured with stones which become very hot. Fresh snapper is usually the type of fish used. The fish is wrapped in coconut fronds and placed directly on the heated rocks of the umu. Samoans are known for their culinary enjoyments, so this is an event you must try to attend.

Later that night, after making sure Anette got back to her rented house which she shared with friends, and riding the local bus back to Sadies …. I was contemplatively transported again to those noted walls of gratitude which surround one’s heart. Once more I was encaptured, like the unicorn of myth… the restless rider….by the blessings the spiritual traveler receives.

There is a mountain on Tutuila known as The Rainmaker. It is massive and usually wears as its cape a cloud. As we passed under it, I felt a transformation under its inspiring towers of awe. I may never be back here, I thought. But now I viewed my wanderings less a curse, and more a journey….closer to the beginning, than to….

The End

---- John Syron

Dec. 9, 2019

Travel Dates = Feb, 2012

Credits:

John Syron

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